Phoenix Park is crowded with people every Saturday buying local food and other products at the Eau Claire Downtown Farmer’s Market. Now, another group can come enjoy this community event as well: FoodShare patrons.
Since last summer, the Farmer’s Market has run the Token Program, which gives participants of FoodShare, the Food Stamp program in Wisconsin, the opportunity to purchase fresh, local food using their Quest card. The Quest card holds FoodShare dollars that can be used at grocery stores and markets in Eau Claire.
In a simple transaction, Quest card owners can visit a table on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. where local volunteers give them tokens to use at any vendor table on any day the Farmer’s Market is open. Each token is worth $1. If a person doesn’t have cash on hand, Credit or Debit card holders can also receive tokens with an extra charge of one dollar per transaction.
The Token Program started out of a need seen in the Eau Claire community for more access to healthy, locally grown, fresh food.
“About one out of five Eau Claire County residents rely on FoodShare to help feed their families. That’s about 17 percent,” said Nancy Coffey, the Wisconsin Nutrition Education Coordinator and Chair of the Hunger Prevention Coalition of Eau Claire County, “and often food-insecure families have less access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
In 2012, the Hunger Prevention Coalition of Eau Claire County worked with AmeriCorps VISTA and Eau Claire County UW-Extension to start the Token Program.
According to Coffey, UW-Eau Claire was also “very instrumental in making it happen.” Eau Claire graduate Ann Watson worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA intern to get the program going, particularly by attaining its authorization at the market. A graphic artist from UW-Eau Claire helped to promote the program as well.
After the Eau Claire Community Foundation approved a grant for the Token Program, the first year pilot program got going in July and was a success. Almost $4,000 came in from the Token Program in the months of July through October.
Farmer’s Market Manager Deidra Barrickman said every week this year thus far has been fantastic also. The first week of the program brought in $400 and every week the totals have been going up. Last week, they raised $1,000, she said.
Besides its monetary success, the Token Program has made tangible accomplishments in the Eau Claire community as well. Feedback from the program has been positive overall, Barrickman said.
“There have been people that have never had an opportunity to shop at the farmers market before because the only money they can afford to spend on food is with their Quest card …” Barrickman said, “and some of the feedback from them is that they love being able to buy fresh, local vegetables and dairy and they felt more of a sense of community.”
In addition to this sense of community among Eau Claire residents, the tokens themselves promote equality between Farmer’s Market customers. The blue tokens are for Quest card holders to buy only food, while red tokens are for food and other products. This helps to distinguish between FoodShare participants and the general public, but it does not single out FoodShare patrons because non-Quest card users can purchase items with the tokens.
Vendors benefit from the Token Program as well. Produce vendor Dan Sam said that it is a good program and it helps sales. Other vendors said they feel it is a positive program because it brings more people to the market and vendors receive their profits from the tokens simply at the end of the day.
As the Token Program helps to meet the needs of the Eau Claire community and its vendors, Eau Claire residents and students can help out by using their debit or credit cards to get tokens, Coffey said. Using a debit or credit cars is essentially “giving a dollar donation to help their neighbors to maximize their food dollars and also to help local farmers,” she said.
The Farmer’s Market is open Wednesdays from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Thursdays from 12 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.