SACRAMENTO -- Tina Tennyson loved to make raspberry jam using the fresh fruit she bought at the farmers market in San Jose. When she recently moved to Sacramento, she hit a stumbling block: The local market didn't accept food stamps.
As with most farmers markets across the state, the one held Sundays in the state capital accepts only cash.
Lawmakers are considering a bill that would help the markets get equipment to accept electronic food stamp benefit cards, joining legislatures nationwide considering similar measures they hope will expand the menu of fresh food options for the poor as food stamp enrollment soars.
"Everything in the supermarket is expensive and a lot of their fruit and stuff is not ripe," said Tennyson, a 39-year-old grandmother who feeds a family of three on $300 a month. She called the bill "a good idea."
The card readers operate like those used for bank debit cards, except the cards cannot be used to get cash. Only about 15 percent of the 640 markets in the state have the capability.
Assemblyman Juan Arambula, an independent from Fresno, said he introduced the bill to help poor people gain more access to fresh fruits and vegetables because unhealthy lifestyles can lead to obesity and diabetes. Unemployment has soared to more than 30 percent in some communities in Arambula's district.
"You have poor people who work out in the field and make very little money, and they can't afford to buy nutritious food for their families," Arambula said.
The Modesto Certified Farmers Market accepts paper food stamps but not electronic food stamp cards, said Marie Uber, assistant manager of the market that operates on 16th Street between H and I streets.
Uber said the market considered obtaining the required authorization from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well as the card readers, but the idea never came to fruition.
She said she still is interested but would need to know more about how the state would help the market get the card readers.
"We're open to anything that provides more access to our products," Uber said. "Anything we can do to better serve the community."
Shoppers can use the electronic food stamp cards to buy produce at the Ceres Flea and Farmers Market, which opened under new management in July. Owner and operator Dennis Mineni accepts the cards at his flea markets in Merced and Atwater as well.
Mineni said he has USDA approval to sell produce, along with state and federal approval to accept the cards.
He said customers go to the market's front office, swipe their cards and receive $1 wooden tokens to buy produce.
At the end of the day, Mineni gives the produce sellers money for the tokens. He said he doesn't make any profit from the exchange.
"It's just a good way for the customers to buy good produce at a price that's less than some of the major stores," Mineni said in a Bee article in July.
Enrollment has skyrocketed
Enrollment in the federal food stamp program grew 43 percent in California from October 2007 to October 2009, according to the nonprofit California Budget Project. By comparison, the group says enrollment grew 6 percent over the same period from 2001-03, the last significant economic downturn.
Ballooning food stamp programs have prompted lawmakers in Indiana, Texas, Vermont and other states to propose laws that would make it easier for farmers markets to get and use the machines, said Douglas Shinkle, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Most farmers markets in California are cash-only operations and are set up in fields or parking lots with no electricity. Wireless devices cost about $1,000.
"They just don't have the money and personnel to do it. They're just too tight on their budgets right now," said Dan Bass, general counsel for the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets, which promotes and lobbies for 140 markets.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada contributed to this report.