Students are getting a new way to reap the benefits of locally grown food.
The United States Department of Agriculture is giving the Blacksburg Farmers Market a $50,041 grant to fund technology to accept payment from Hokie Passports and EBT (food stamp) cards. The grant will also fund educational programs.
“We’ve really seen an increase in the number of students who want to shop here,” said Ellen Stewart, farmers market director. “But it’s limiting for some of the students who get most of their money through their Hokie Passport.”
The farmers market directs several educational programs on campus to raise interest among the students.
“Last spring we did a mini farmers market in front of the Graduate Life Center,” Stewart said, “to give kids a taste of what happens over here and encourage them to walk just a couple blocks further and come to the real market.”
The farmers market will now be able to host similar events at least two or three times per year because of the grant money.
Stewart also credited student interest to efforts on the part of teachers at Virginia Tech.
“A lot of professors have made assignments for students to come down to the farmers market and interview vendors,” Stewart said. “And I think the common book this year, ‘Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,’ really got a lot of kids thinking about it and talking about it. And once they get here, they usually love it.”
The farmers market is also using the opportunity to reach out to low-income residents.
“We’re excited because we’re going to be able to broaden our customer base,” Stewart said, “by offering opportunities for people who are on food stamps.”
Blacksburg’s poverty rate was 44 percent, more than double the national average, when the previous Census was taken in 2000. Many Blacksburg residents are currently enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
The SNAP education program at Tech, which provides information about nutrition and shopping, will partner with the farmers market to raise awareness of the changes.
“We’ll be giving them the same opportunity everybody else has to buy fresh, local food,” Stewart said.
Many vendors are looking forward to being able to accept Hokie Passports and EBT cards.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Denise Knight, a market vendor who runs the Delight’s Home Bakery stand. “It just needs to be planned properly.”
The Blacksburg farmers market brings vendors from a 50-mile radius to offer locally-grown food to Blacksburg residents.
Vendors can only sell homegrown or homemade food, which many of them say is healthier than what consumers could buy in a supermarket.
“It makes a big difference nutritionally, and I think flavor-wise too,” said Nancy Crompton, owner of Sterling Bridge Dairy Farm, about the cheese she was selling during Saturday’s market. “You are getting more nutrition and there are enzymes in raw products that are not there in pasteurized ones.”
The market was active on Saturday, with vendors selling everything from peppers and potatoes to muffins and milk, even homemade candles and chapstick.
The area was full of people checking out the vendors, participating in pumpkin-painting activities, listening to live music and just hanging out.
Stewart attributed the popularity to the recent improvements to the area, such as the new roof and converting part of the parking lot to a lawn, which were both added last winter.
“It’s created a wonderful community gathering place for people,” Stewart said. “There’s a number of the people in the community who just believe in the farmers market and have worked hard to make it what it is today.”
The farmers market is open every Wednesday afternoon until Dec. 31 and Saturday mornings year-round.