Merced flea markets eligible to take food stamps

Low-income families can now use food stamps to buy fruits and vegetables at Merced County flea markets.

Though farmers markets in some parts of the Central Valley accept food stamps, this marks the first time families can use the stamps at farmers markets in Merced.

"One of our main goals is to prevent the growing obesity rates, especially in children," said Claudia Corchado, a project coordinator with Merced County's Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program. "Access to fresh fruits and vegetables plays a big role in that."

CCROPP and the county's Human Services Agency worked with Dennis Mineni, who owns the county's two flea markets, to add food stamps to the market's list of payment options.

Families can use EBT cards, the modern debit-card version of food stamps, to buy $1 tokens redeemable for produce at the flea markets. Unused tokens can be returned and credited back to EBT cards.

Besides making healthy foods more accessible to food-stamp users, the program makes them cheaper, said Kathy Hassett, a deputy director at the county's Human Services Agency. "You get a lot more for your dollar at the flea market than you do at the grocery store," she said.

Though it's taken more than a year to get the state's approval and to implement the token system, officials say the effort will prove worthwhile. They say they hope to expand food stamps to all farmers markets in Merced County.

More than 11,000 Merced County families rely on food stamps. But that's only about 60 percent of those who are eligible, said Corchado. "There's a lot of families who don't think they'll qualify," she said. "If they're having trouble making ends meet, we encourage people to call us and see."

To apply for food stamps, or for more information, call 385-3000 or go to www.c4yourself.com.