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The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a study Nov. 24 indicating the level of success each state is attaining in reaching families eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program.

The study stated that in years 2005-07, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee and West Virginia had significantly higher participation rates for all eligible people than two-thirds of the states in the nation.

Information that is more recent is provided by the Food Research & Action Center, a leading national non-profit organization working to improve public policies and public-private partnerships to eradicate hunger and undernutrition in the United States. It found that in August 2009, SNAP participation continued to break records, rising to a record 36,491,920 people, an increase of 640,751 individuals from July 2009, the prior record level, and an increase of 7 million people compared with the prior August.

According to a Nov. 28 story in The New York Times, based on the analysis of the local data it collected, SNAP is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day, and there are 239 counties in the United States where at least a quarter of the population receives food stamps.

What the USDA cannot determine is how much of the SNAP funding is being spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. The data are not reported on exact food groups, and SNAP permits participants to purchase in all food categories, including seeds and plants that produce food.

Families that qualify for federal food aid often live in neighborhoods with limited access to the nutritious food they need to support a healthy lifestyle. In 2000, when food stamps transitioned from paper coupons to the paperless EBT card, the problem grew more severe because many farmers markets were unable to accept the new payment method.

But that has now changed. As state nutritional agencies recognized the need for people to have better access to healthy food, the USDA and state governments began work to enable EBT transfers at greenmarkets.

The USDA's 2008 Status Report on Farmers Market SNAP Participants shows increased usage of EBT cards at greenmarkets across the country, indicating that SNAP participants are buying a lot of fresh produce.

According to the USDA, as of the end of 2008, 753 farmers markets in over 30 states and territories in the United States were authorized to accept SNAP benefits, a 34 percent increase from 2007. While the percentage of redemptions at greenmarkets is small in comparison to total SNAP purchases, the amount of funds going to small farmers increased from about $1 million in 2007 to $2.7 million in 2008.

One example of EBT purchases at greenmarkets across the country is California, where 118 farmers market locations are authorized to accept SNAP benefits. Also, Oregon planned to have 24 farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits in 2009. There are currently 27 farmers markets in Washington state authorized to accept SNAP. Michigan reported that SNAP use increased from two markets in 2006 to 16 in 2008.

Some states are working aggressively to increase the SNAP program at greenmarkets. On Nov. 22, a report issued by Christine C. Quinn, city council speaker for New York City, numerous other organizations and a couple of farmers highlighted a dramatic increase in the use of food stamps at the city's greenmarkets.

In 2006, the New York City Council began providing funding for EBT scanners, signage, community outreach and a dedicated staff member to operate the machines at four greenmarkets in the city. The program proved an immediate success, most notably at the Poe Park Greenmarket in the Bronx, NY, where the amount of food stamps being used grew from almost nothing to over $500 a day. As a result, the council increased funding for the program, now in its fourth year, and EBT machines are now available at 23 greenmarkets citywide.

The report stated that this year, food stamp purchases at New Yyork City greenmarkets have more than doubled, growing from $100,772 in 2008 to $226,469 in 2009. This September alone, food stamp usage at greenmarkets went from $25,415 in 2008 to $62,816.

"Too often, we expect families living in low-income communities to make nutritious choices without ensuring they have the resources to do so," Jilly Stephens, executive director of City Harvest, said in the report. "At a time when more New Yorkers may not know where their next meal is coming from, this program has made fresh, locally grown food an option."