This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

People shopping at the Lenoir Downtown Farmers Market this year may be able to use debit or credit cards for all of their purchases.

That would be a bonus stemming from the market’s application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday to accept the  electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

They’ll have an answer, yes or no, within 45 days. Approval would require the market to set up a wireless point-of-sale terminal, which is the technology that would allow shoppers to pay with debit or credit cards at the market, too.

Being able to accept SNAP benefits would be an important step toward increasing “food security” in the community, a term used to refer to whether households have ready access to fresh, healthy foods, said Brittany Crump, a health educator with the Caldwell County Health Department.

“This allows for individuals who have SNAP/EBT to buy locally grown produce from local farmers, benefiting their families and the farmers,” Crump said. “Benefits could include better health outcomes by increasing the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables individuals are receiving and an increase in community morale through fellowship with neighbors and community members.”

The ability to swipe a SNAP card at the farmers market is a way to get local foods into the hands of people who need them most, market manager Lynn Deau said.

“What I think it would do is be more efficient for them in getting local produce — not something from a thousand miles away,” Deau said. “If they go to Wal-Mart, you don’t know how far that stuff has come and what’s in it.”

The Lenoir Downtown Farmers Market is the only producer-only market in Caldwell County. All foods sold there have to be grown and raised in the county. They can’t be purchased somewhere else, then resold at the market.

The farmers market already accepts benefits from the Women, Infants and Children program. But that applies only to produce, and helps a relatively small segment of the population: pregnant and nursing mothers, and their children.

Accepting EBT cards would expand the market’s reach to anyone receiving SNAP benefits — and they’d be able to purchase meat from the three beef, pork and poultry vendors lined up for this year.

Work to extend federal benefits to allow buying of local produce at places other than traditional grocery stores is a growing movement — but not one that has caught on with any particular fervor locally. Of the 200-plus farmers markets in North Carolina, only a handful accept EBT cards.

If accepted, the Lenoir market would be the only farmers market in the county to accept SNAP benefits through EBT cards — though the Sawmills Farmers Market is starting the application process and may join those ranks eventually.