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Food Stamps and EBT at Farmers Markets

EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) is the technology used today for Food Stamp purchases. Rather than having paper vouchers like they did years ago, Food Stamp clients now have all their benefits saved electronically on plastic cards much like debit or credit cards.

EBT Card for Food stamps in Washington StateWhen making purchases, the card is run through the same POS (Point of Sale) machine used for other forms of electronic payment. In 2006, nearly 11.7 million households (or 27 million people) across the U.S. participated in the EBT program. While the movement to transfer Food Stamp benefits from paper to plastic has increased the program's convenience and efficiency in general, it has made the use of benefits at most direct marketing outlets much more difficult, thus decreasing access to the freshest products available.

Farmers markets and farm stands usually operate in environments where electricity and land-line telephones are not readily accessible, which prevents the use of onsite POS machines. To overcome this substantial barrier and continue honoring Food Stamp benefits, many markets have discovered and piloted unique and creative script or token EBT systems.

How does EBT work at the market? Not all farmers market EBT programs throughout the U.S. operate in the same way, though most of those in Washington State use a special system involving paper receipts, cell phones and wooden tokens. Here is how it might work:

  1. Customers with EBT cards come to the Market Information Booth where a transfer voucher supplied by JP Morgan (the company that leases POS machines) is filled out. The customer decides ahead of time how much money he or she would like to spend (like making a withdrawal) and the account is verified using a cell phone. The market provides the customer with wooden tokens equal to the amount of money he or she wishes to spend at the market. Each token is worth $1 each and looks something like this:


  1. EBT customers can then visit market booths and give individual vendors their wooden tokens in exchange for farm fresh or high quality processed foods. Tokens CANNOT be used to purchase hot foods, ready-to-eat food, alcohol, or non-food items such as soap or other crafts. Vendors are also not allowed to give cash change for EBT token purchases.
  2. For farmers and other market food vendors that sell EBT appropriate products, the wooden tokens are as good as money. At the end of the Market day, vendors may be asked to include the tokens they've received with their daily fees. The amount in tokens will be subtracted from their balance or they will receive a reimbursement check later on.
  3. To complete the process, a market staff person must enter each transaction into a stationary POS machine (usually located in the market office) within 10 days using the information on the transfer vouchers that were filled out at the time of purchase. The funds will go straight into the market's bank account and the vendors are, again, reimbursed for all EBT sales. Accepting EBT cards at farmers markets may seem complicated, but WSFMA believes it is a very important service to offer.

Much like the WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, it improves access to fresh, nutritious foods for low income families in communities throughout Washington State, while also providing an additional source of revenue for our local farmers and artisans.

For more information, visit www.fns.usda.gov

Washington State
Farmers Market Association

WSFMA office location and mailing address:
93 Pike Street, Suite 316
Seattle, WA 98101

Phone: (206) 706-5198

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