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Green for greens — while it lasts

A modest serving of Health Bucks entices food stamp recipients to buy farmers market produce

At Union Square Greenmarket and other farmers markets, food stamp recipients can buy $7 of produce for $5 using city-issued coupons. Photo: Jazz Guy/Flickr.

This week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the expansion of a program to help low-income New Yorkers pay for fresh, locally grown produce. “Health Bucks” are now available and redeemable at all 138 of the city’s farmer’s markets, up from 65 markets last year.

At a news conference on Monday, the mayor praised the financial boost the $2 coupons give to shoppers who pay for their groceries using government-issued electronic benefit transfer cards, commonly known as food stamps. “That really is increasing your buying power by 40 percent, a terrific way to stretch your budget,” Bloomberg said at the edge of the Union Square Greenmarket, as shoppers sifted through piles of fresh produce behind him.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also took the podium to praise Health Bucks. “To make sure that every Greenmarket in the city takes Health Bucks means New Yorkers are going to have a much greater chance at getting more healthy food on a regular basis,” Quinn said.

Yet even with the expansion, only a tiny fraction of those eligible will benefit. The Department of Health distributed 131,000 of the coupons last year, in a city with 1.8 million food stamp recipients. Of the coupons in circulation, 70 percent ended up redeemed at farmer’s markets. The expansion, the Department of Health projects, will put 190,000 Health Bucks into circulation this year, adding a modest $350,000 to the estimated $3.4 billion in annual food stamp spending by city residents.

“There aren’t enough Health Bucks to go around,” said Joel Berg, the executive director of New York City Coalition Against Hunger. “It’s an important, great thing but it still reaches only a relatively small percentage of the population of people who need it.”

The city takes the view that every piece of the health puzzle counts. “Not every program is able to reach every single New Yorker, but we have a myriad of programs that do touch a lot of people,” said Department of Health spokesperson Alexandra Waldhorn. Her agency also runs the Green Cart program that brings inexpensive fresh fruit into underserved neighborhoods, and it has also worked with bodega owners to expand the range of healthy food on their shelves.

Distributed at farmers markets and at community-based organizations in high-poverty neighborhoods, each Health Bucks coupon offers a $2 bonus for every $5 a food stamp recipient spends on fresh produce at farmer’s markets using an EBT card. The Bloomberg administration launched Health Bucks in 2005 to give low-income New Yorkers better access and more incentive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. The city also sought to prevent food stamp recipients from spending benefits on sugary drinks but was rebuffed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which sponsors the food aid.

Across the country, a handful of other states are building incentives into shopping with food stamps at farmers markets, including Double Up Food Bucks in Michigan and Portland, Oregon’s Fresh Exchange program.

On Thursday afternoon, 52-year-old Michelle Mitchell shopped for produce at her favorite farmer’s market, on Broadway between 114th and 116th Street in Manhattan. She handed her EBT card to a Greenmarket attendant in exchange for $40 worth of tokens to spend at the market — and a bonus $16 fistful of Health Bucks. Mitchell, who’s unemployed, said she was grateful that the coupons allowed her to stretch her monthly budget and afford to maintain healthy eating habits.

“It makes a big difference,” she said.

Mitchell mainly buys vegetables like tomatoes, squash, eggplant and okra at the market, though sometimes she picks up some of the funny-looking flat peaches, too. “They taste excellent, excellent,” she said with a smile.

Alexis Stevens, the EBT Project Manager at Greenmarket, an organization that runs 54 farmers markets across New York City, said the Department of Health had been in touch with her organization to ask how many coupons it anticipated handing out this year. Last year Greenmarkets distributed more than 60,000 Health Bucks. Stevens expects that this year, that number will be close to 100,000.

She and her staff make an effort to ensure that no one who seeks Health Bucks is turned away. On the occasions when markets have run out of the vouchers, Stevens said they asked people to return later, when they had more coupons to distribute.

“It’s hard to give a guarantee,” she admitted.