Since early November, the Saturday Morning Market in downtown St. Petersburg has been accepting the modern equivalent of food stamps.
Now officials at the region's largest market want to get the word out to economically challenged residents.
EBT, or electronic benefits transfer, cards are part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"We view the program as an incentive to come to the market, buy fresh food and learn how to cook it and eat it," said market manager Gail Eggeman.
According to the Department of Children and Families, 2,344,836 families were on SNAP statewide for the fiscal year 2010-11, up from 1,926,468 a year earlier.
Market officials have been trying for two years to get federal approval to offer healthier food alternatives to low-income residents.
"This wouldn't have been possible until a year or two ago," she said. "The rules were changed so that EBT cardholders could buy organics."
The program was made possible by changes in federal law in 2008 that established pilot projects to determine if incentives to SNAP recipients would increase the purchase of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.
The Saturday Morning Market is one of four markets in the state participating in the program. The others are two farmers markets run by the Florida Organic Growers in Gainesville and another in High Springs.
"This way, everyone gets to eat clean food instead of packaged food,'' Eggeman said. "The program also makes healthy options accessible to anybody that needs it.
Since launching the program, Eggeman said, only 16 shoppers have been taking advantage of the program. But she admits the low turnout could be attributed to a lack of awareness.
The Pinellas County Extension and the Department of Children and Families were meeting Friday morning with market officials to launch a marketing campaign in key locations throughout the county to get the word out.
"Its speaks to the whole issue about affordability," said Nan Jensen, an extension agent, who said at least 25 vendors have agreed to accept EBT cards.
Here's how the program works: Participants in the SNAP program can visit a booth to have their EBT card swiped in exchange for tokens. Tokens are issued in increments of $3 and $1 to be used to buy fruit and vegetables at various booths.
Other stakeholders in the community have stepped in to offer assistance.
According to Eggeman, City Council member Jeff Danner and Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, have asked the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to reconsider bringing back a pertinent bus route that was stopped because of budget cuts.
"It was an unintended consequence by PSTA in changing the route," Steinocher said. "They didn't realize it was the only route serving Saturday Morning Market. We're hopeful that it's reinstated or rerouted."
In the meantime, Eggeman is hopeful that the market's December newsletter and an update on its Facebook page will help get the word out.
Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at [email protected]