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Maurice Walters just graduated from Erie Community College culinary school and is looking for a job.

José Gomez was forced to retire early for a variety of health reasons, including cancer.

Despite their challenges, the two Buffalo men were happy Friday, when they became among the first in the region to experience a new program that will allow food stamp recipients like them to double their money at several farmers’ markets.

“I thought it was a good idea, a good deal not to pass up,” said Walters, 32.

He saw a flier touting Double Up Food Bucks while visiting Erie County Medical Center and headed across the street to the Farmers’ Market at Grider, plunking down $4 in food stamp money and going home with $8 worth of sugar snap peas.

Gomez, 64, who volunteers at ECMC, learned about the program after he arrived at the market and bought fresh strawberries with cash. He then arranged to get $20 in wooden tokens from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which allowed him to get an additional $20 worth of plastic silver Double Up Food Bucks tokens.

“I asked if I could use the tokens anytime,” he said, “and they said I could come back.”

The two men are among more than 250,000 residents in eight Western New York counties who receive benefits from SNAP, formerly called the food stamp program. Three community foundations will foot the bill this growing season at seven regional farmers’ markets so that many of those people can stretch their food dollars while bolstering local agriculture.

SNAP benefits can be used on the vast majority of foods and beverages, except alcohol. Double Up Food Bucks are limited to fruits and vegetables sold by participating farmers at designated farm markets, said Lisa Tucker, co-founder and executive director of the Field & Fork Network and food systems educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Niagara County.

“We’re hoping that instead of spending their SNAP benefits at the corner store on pop and chips that people will go to the farmers’ market,” Tucker said, “and not only will they double their money, but they’ll buy fresh fruits and vegetables.”

The timing is good because it comes a few months after the federal government cut SNAP benefits, said Rita Hubbard-Robinson, who directs the Grider Street market for ECMC’s Lifeline Foundation.

“This is going to provide a lot of answers to a lot of people this summer,” she said.

Farmers who plan to participate are equally thrilled.

“What’s not to like about it? It puts fruits and vegetables into the bellies of those who are most challenged to receive them, and it’s a wonderful project for us farmers because it increases sales at farmers’ markets,” said Tom Tower, a seventh-generation Youngstown farmer who sells produce Saturday mornings at the Elmwood-Bidwell Farmers’ Market, which also will participate, starting next month.

Others starting the program in July include the Clinton-Bailey Farmers’ Market, the North Tonawanda and Lockport Community farmers’ markets in Niagara County, and the Fredonia and Downtown Jamestown markets in Chautauqua County.

The seven markets were chosen because they have a significant percentage of shoppers on SNAP assistance, including senior citizens, the disabled, the unemployed and the underemployed. As a result, they already are set up to swipe credit card-like electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards for purchases. They also have strong management structures, Tucker said.

A total of $364 million in SNAP benefits went to residents in the three Western New York counties where Double Up Food Bucks is being launched, said Cheryl Thayer, who also helped launch the program in the region. She leads the Cornell Cooperative Extension agricultural economic development team in 16 counties west of Ithaca and Tompkins County.

“We’re hoping to expand into more markets and more counties next year. We’re already in pretty aggressive fundraising mode for that,” Thayer said. “Ultimately, we’d like to see the program go statewide.”

The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the John R. Oishei and First Niagara foundations donated money that organizers believe will allow the seven pilot sites to offer the Double Up Food Bucks incentive through October.

“There used to be a feeling 20 years ago in the wholesale, retail farm community that if you give someone something to eat, they’re not going to buy it,” said Tower, who also is on the board that operates the Elmwood-Bidwell market. “I think there’s a realization today that’s not true at all. It’s just the opposite. I think there’s a feeling that if you expose someone to a tomato from Eden Valley who’s never had one, on Wednesday they’re going to want another one, so they’re going to buy it at Tops or Wegmans or Guercio’s or wherever. So I think it’s a very wise investment in market development.”

The Field & Fork Network – a 5-year-old Western New York nonprofit group dedicated to connecting local farmers with consumers across the region – worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension to launch Double Up Food Bucks.

As they planned, they got help from the program’s creator, Oran B. Hesterman, a former farmer and Michigan State University agricultural professor who is president and CEO of the Fair Food Network. They beckoned him to Buffalo twice last year.

Hesterman and his nonprofit network launched Double Up Food Bucks five years ago in Detroit, where more than 90 percent of food retailers who accept SNAP are convenience stores, corner stores and liquor stores.

The program was designed to tackle obesity and unhealthy eating at the ground level, Hesterman said during a fall visit to Buffalo, and to allow fresh, local produce to compete on a level price platform with unhealthy SNAP-eligible foods.

“There’s this conventional wisdom that if you’re going to change behaviors, you need a carrot and a stick … In this case, all you need is a better tasting and affordable carrot,” Hesterman said.

Today, more than 100 farm markets across Michigan participate in the program, he said, and the Fair Food Network looks to expand it into supermarkets as early as this year. More than 90 percent of farmers report selling more fruits and vegetables because of the program and Michigan accounts for 10 percent nationwide of all SNAP money spent at farmers’ markets, Hesterman said.

Fair food advocates in Ohio and Western New York have been among the first to piggyback on the program – which is expected to mushroom next year. The federal farm bill passed earlier this year includes $100 million for “food insecurity nutrition incentives,” an allocation formulated with the Double Up Food Bucks and similar programs in mind.

Food advocates in Western New York plan to pursue some of that money, as well as more from donors within the region, Thayer said.

Those who used the Double Up system on Friday in Buffalo found it easy, as well as rewarding.

Walters asked that his SNAP EBT card be swiped for $4. He received four wooden $1 SNAP tokens and two $2 Double Up Food Bucks tokens, the latter of which have the program logo on one side and the value on the other, along with the words: “No change given” and “Fruits & Vegetables Only.”

Tower said he and fellow farmers who plan to participate have been trained how to use the token system, and will receive dollar-for-dollar reimbursement.

“There is a groundswell of people that give a hoot,” he said, adding that it shouldn’t take farmers long to grasp the new program. “If someone has an extra dollar or two, I’m going to figure it out pretty fast.”

email: sscanlon@buffnews.com