Georgia Says

Savannah Morning News on healthy use for food stamps:

The nation's welfare system often does a better job of keeping some families in poverty than in providing incentives that lead to a better life.

It's also abused.

Just last month, federal prosecutors in Savannah indicted 54 people here and across Georgia in a $18 million ripoff scheme to defraud the taxpayer-supported food stamp program, which is designed to feed needy children.

But there should be widespread agreement on two points: No kid should go hungry; they shouldn't be punished for things beyond their control.

Second, when children are fed at public expense, they should be steered toward food that's wholesome and nutritious. Not food that's highly processed and loaded with ingredients that contribute to childhood obesity.

That's why the community should cheer the growth in the amount of food stamps being used to purchase food at the Forsyth Farmer's Market, open on Saturday mornings on the south end of the big park.

Participation by people eligible for EBT (electronic benefit transaction) cards grew there for a fifth straight year in 2013 to $31,190. Sales of fresh, locally grown food this year are on track to match that number, according to market coordinators.

What's more, a nonprofit group called Wholesome Wave Georgia, which is committed to increasing access to good food for Georgians and contributing to the local economy at the same time, matches up to $30 in purchases for customers using EBT cards.

About 60 percent of the matching funds come from Wholesome Wave Georgia; the rest is raised locally through grants and donations.

Thus a recipient who uses an EBT card to buy $20 to $30 in squash, tomatoes, beans, okra and other produce actually gets $40 to $60 worth of goods in take-home bags. That means the taxpayer dollars spent at the market last year probably bought closer to $62,000 worth of food.

This means more fresh vegetables on tables for kids to consume - and, more money in local farmers' pockets. These are reasons to cheer.

Forsyth started its double-value token program just a few months after opening in 2009 and has seen participation increase mostly through word of mouth. It had the highest redemption rate for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (still commonly known as food stamps) at a single farmers market in Georgia in 2013. They've also consistently ranked in the top two since its inception.

The downtown market may even go on the road by using a food truck to take its products into neighborhoods.

That's a healthy twist.

Too often, some food stamp recipients choose expensive junk food over less costly, but more nutritious, items. But they may have little choice. They may live in what nutritionists called 'food deserts' - areas where wholesome food is unavailable.

Many things are wrong with welfare, such as creating disincentives for two-parent households and for honest work. But this innovative program, which puts good food in empty stomachs and helps farmers, isn't one of them.

Instead, it's the free enterprise system at its best.

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