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Customers and vendors express surprise at food stamp cutbacks


Pamela Oleas, manager of the 92nd Street Greenmarket on the Upper East Side, estimates that over half of her customers use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) to pay for their groceries.


Oleas believes recent cuts to the food stamp program will certainly affect the market, but not as much as it will affect others sprinkled throughout the city. She says the Lincoln Center Greenmarket has an abundance of EBT customers, and the impact will be felt more heavily there.


"Not many people come [here]," says Oleas, "but most people who do use cash or EBT."


The stereotypical farmers' market customer may be thought of as an upper class, vegan yoga instructor looking for some kale and gras+s-fed beef. But the reality may surprise you. In 2012, GrowNYC GreenMarkets counted over $800,000 in sales from Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) customers, or customers that receive credit from the SNAP program, previously known as food stamps. And Union Square Market had the most amount of EBT profits: over $241,000. In fact, only 7 percent of Greenmarkets do not accept EBTs.

So what happens then, when the government makes significant cuts nationwide to people who rely on these food stamps to survive? It comes out to about $11 less a month for an individual for a total of $189, and a $36 cutback for a family of four for a total of $632.

Ngodup Tserind, who runs the bread and pastry stand at the Greenmarket says he only sees one to two EBT users a day at the market, which operates Sundays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. He notes the produce vendors see more EBT users and would receive more of the impact from cuts to the program than he would.


Another market worker, Tsering, who prefers his last name not be published, oversees the produce section known as "Philip's Market." He has not heard about the food stamp cuts and can't understand why this resource would be reduced.


"It's for the poor and unemployed," he says. "A lot of customers use it and people are using it in a sensible way."


Tsering also works at the Grand Army Plaza market in Brooklyn and says by the end of the day, they have a massive stack of Women, Infants, Children (WIC) checks. He adds the 92nd street market is smaller and lesser known as it only recently got started.

Nestor Vestwicz, a customer at the market, says he will be paying with both cash and his benefit card for produce. Vetwicz says he's not worried about the cuts and that he's personally doing okay.

Another customer at the market who preferred not to be named says the market, and others like it, simply need more exposure. She says the further you move uptown, the more you encounter fast food restaurants and dingy bodegas with fewer grocery stores.


"There's a low rate of diabetes here," she says, indicating the low 90s, "until you hit Harlem, then you see people walking around without a leg."


The market also provides educational presentations on nutrition facts and how to cook healthfully.


"The city is spending so much on Medicaid, but this preventative," she said. "It's also important mentally. People come and see they have a choice and it breaks the mental barrier."


While she concedes prices are actually lower downtown at the 14th Street market, she believes vendors take the use of benefit cards into consideration on the Upper East Side, though the 14th Street market also accepts food stamps.


Elderly EBT users really feel the impact of the cuts, especially if they live alone.


"I can't believe they've deducted $11 when I was barely making anything to begin with," said Paul Georges, 89, a Union Square Market customer from New Jersey. "I get a $20 greenmarket coupon as a senior. I don't know what I'm going to buy now, but it's got to be something soft. I have to be more frugal now."


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