Farmers’ Market season has arrived in Philadelphia, which means that year-round markets like

» READ MORE: Clark Park

are bustling with new energy and seasonal markets like

» READ MORE: Headhouse

–Philly’s largest open-air market– are now open for business.  But farmers’ markets are not only fun places to see your neighbors and purchase freshly-picked locally grown produce.  They are also an important part of the city’s effort to increase access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods.

This summer, thanks to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health's Get Healthy Philly campaign, farm-fresh, delicious food will be more available in neighborhoods where fast food and junk food dominate the market.  And by using Philly Food Bucks, families that participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, still known by its former name, food stamps) will be able to get bonus incentives to purchase healthy food at farmers' markets.

In Philadelphia, The Food Trust has been a national leader in accepting SNAP at its farmers' markets and began using wireless card reader machines in 2004.  Through a network of markets, including Headhouse, more than 100 farmers are able to bring their fresh products to a wide range of locations throughout the city.  This season, customers can shop at 25 farmers' markets, from Germantown to Point Breeze and South Philly to West Oak Lane.  Several new ones are being planned, including one on North Broad Street in partnership with Congregation Rodeph Shalom.  But with food prices at an all-time high, SNAP participants need to get the most value for their dollar.

Enter Philly Food Bucks, part of the Get Healthy Philly initiative named Food Fit Philly (which has a better website). This incentive program increases the purchasing power of SNAP customers by 40%, making it easier to shop healthy on a budget.  For every $5 in food stamps a customer spends at the farmers' market, he or she receives a $2 coupon good for fresh fruits and vegetables. These markets–including 10 new ones opened with funding assistance from the city–are often in low-income neighborhoods where the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, is substantially higher than in more well-to-do neighborhoods.  Since the introduction of Philly Food Bucks, SNAP sales at The Food Trust's farmers' markets has increased by more than 375%.  These additional revenue sources directly contribute to the sustainability of local agriculture by boosting the income of Pennsylvania farmers.

Farmers' markets are a great way to encourage Philadelphia residents to make healthier choices.  Research shows that users of Philly Food Bucks increase their fruit and vegetable intake.  There's something else: Besides offering nutritious, great-tasting food, farmers' markets can change the way people think about food.  By meeting farmers and learning about how food is grown, customers can gain a new interest and enthusiasm for trying items like spinach, asparagus, and tomatoes, instead of the latest processed creation at a fast food joint.  And thanks to campaigns like Let's Move, more and more families are becoming interested in farmers' markets and home gardens nationwide.

There also is good news for farmers' markets and healthy food incentives in the recently passed federal Farm Bill.  Funding for the Farmers' Market Promotion Program tripled and a new program called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program was created.  This new program will provide federal support to expand coupon incentives for fresh food programs, like Philly Food Bucks, that are happening around the country.

So grab your market shopping bags and fill up on fresh strawberries, collard greens, and sweet potatoes.  Your purchases will support local farmers– and increase access to healthy food for everyone. Most farmers' markets locations and hours of operation are listed on the websites of either The Food Trust or the Farm to City program.

Read more about The Public's Health.