The frigid weather didn't deter a determined stream of customers at the Rochester Public Market from finding Margaret O'Neill for Market Tokens on a recent Thursday.
O'Neill is the program director for the Friends of the Rochester Public Market and she manages the token program, which she says is a main access to nutritional foods for many Rochester seniors, children, and families.
Customers who receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program can use their debit-like benefit card to obtain small, wooden coins that can be used to purchase fresh produce and other foods from the market's vendors.
The tokens come in green $1 and red $5 denominations. The low-tech program is a surprisingly powerful antidote to the food deserts that exist in many low-income neighborhoods, O'Neill says, where fresh, affordable produce can be hard to find.
And Rochester's token program may be one of the most effective in the country, she says. The market exchanged more than $500,000 in tokens in 2014, or nearly 3 percent of all SNAP redemptions at the roughly 5,000 public markets across the country, O'Neill says.
"Our research shows that 75 percent of the token redemption is for fresh fruits and vegetables, though they can also be used for meat, poultry, and baked goods," she says. "But they can't be used for hot prepared foods. Sorry, no breakfast sandwiches."
Some customers use the tokens to purchase vegetable plants in the spring and grow their own food, O'Neill says. The program benefits farmers, too, she says, because they can sell more produce.
The success of the token program is bittersweet, however, because it's a sobering reminder of the poverty impacting the Rochester area, she says. The number of food stamp users at the Public Market has grown astronomically in the last few years, O'Neill says.
Though the token program is extremely popular with customers and vendors, "Unfortunately, it also gives us the distinction of being one of the poorest communities in the country," she says.
The program was developed in 2008 when New York State stopped issuing the paper denominations commonly referred to as food stamps. The state began providing monthly SNAP benefits on a plastic card that looks and operates much like a debit card.
"But most of the vendors don't have an electronic debit card machine," O'Neill says.
Several state agencies developed the token program for New York, which operates on a voluntary basis with vendors.
Through March, SNAP customers can double the value of their tokens at the Public Market up to $20 per person per day. The promotion was made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation.