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Growers market won't accept Oregon Trail Card

If you want to use an Oregon Trail Card to pick up produce at a growers' market, more than 100 accept them in Oregon.

Another 51 markets participate in Double Up Food Bucks, a program that gives low-income people twice the buying power with their food stamp money this summer.

But at the Grants Pass Growers Market, don't try to use your Oregon Trail Card. After a five-year run of accepting them, the Oregon Trail Card is no longer accepted at the market.

Manager Bob Schaller said the market quit accommodating the cards in December because of concerns over personal liability and fraud.

Schaller added that it's probably a temporary hiatus, as the market is trying to alter its nonprofit status with the Internal Revenue Service to eliminate the liability and fraud concerns.

"Chances are really good that even by the winter market we'll have our determination from the IRS and get our EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) machine turned back on," Schaller said.

Schaller said he's had so many people ask about the policy change that he's included phone numbers for U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden on the market sign.

"If they'd like to do something about it, call your senator and have them pressure the IRS to finish our application," he said.

Few of the other markets seem to be worrying about fraud or liability.

At markets like Cave Junction's, up to 15 people a week are getting $20 in produce instead of $10 through the Double Up Bucks program, said Sarah Kuhn, market co-manager.

Markets in Roseburg, Ashland and Medford are also participating in the Double Up Bucks program, which is funded in Oregon with $500,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kuhn said in May and June, $852 was spent at the Cave Junction farmers' market thanks to Double Up Bucks, which itself is part of the food stamp program known as SNAP (short for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

"We're excited about it because that money is going to our local farmers, and that's really valuable for them," she said. "It's also introducing people to what's available locally, and maybe they're eating a healthier diet."

The lack of access at Grants Pass has raised eyebrows, though Schaller's board backs him.

Schaller took over for Marti Fate in 2014, and he said in the process of updating records "we triggered a USDA review which dropped us into the abyss of federal agencies."

Each market has to list a "responsible person" with the agencies, and while Fate had no problem with listing her name, Schaller does. He is concerned about potential penalties if fraud occurs with Oregon Trail cards, and doesn't want his personal information, such as a Social Security number, linked to the market.

"Marti was OK to accept that. I am not," Schaller said. "I am an employee, and employees don't put themselves on the hook."

Growers' Market board member Steve Florin said none of his colleagues wanted to be the person responsible either. "Nobody on the board wanted to take on that liability," he said.

The Double Up Bucks program is administered by the Farmers Market Fund in Oregon.

Trudi Tolliver, executive director of both the Portland Farmers Market and the Farmers Market Fund, said a few other markets, such as one in Sisters, have had issues with the SNAP program, and she sympathized with Schaller's concerns.

"A lot of people don't want to disclose their personal information to the federal government, and that's a legitimate reason," Tolliver said. "It hasn't stopped most markets, but it's a reasonable concern."

The Grants Pass Growers Market began in 1980, and for many years accepted the old paper food stamps before plastic debit cards came along.

Grants Pass went a few years before getting the equipment and electricity to deal with the cards, said Fate, who preceded Schaller as the market's manager.

Once the food stamp program went electronic in 2011, Fate said she had no problem dealing with the issue of potential fraud. The cards are supposed to be used only for food items, although some people tried to make other purchases.

"We'd swipe the cards at the market lot, and give people paper 'money' to use with the various vendors and we'd collect them back," Fate said. "I knew which vendors had food and which didn't. Occasionally I had somebody turn in food stamps that wasn't eligible, and I'd squash it right there. I wouldn't reimburse it."

She said between $200 and $300 a week came through the EBT machines during her final years as manager, 2013.

"Frankly, I was real surprised when I saw the Grants Pass market was no longer taking them," she said.

Schaller said he has 130 vendors, 25 or 30 for prepared food, about the same for crafts, and close to 70 farms.

He said fraud can happen, for example, if someone wanted to buy a ready-to-eat tamale, which is not eligible under SNAP, as opposed to a frozen one, which is.

"If you make a sale that's improper … the vendor isn't the one whose name is on the application, it's mine," Schaller said.

Belit Burke of the Department of Human Services, the state agency in charge of the food assistance program, countered, "To my knowledge, we've never had a farmers market with any fraud issues."

Chris Hall, board president for the Cave Junction market, disagreed with the decision.

"I can't believe that the Grants Pass Growers Market, with the number of people struggling (in Josephine County), made a decision as reckless as that," Hall said.

He said there's no good reason to not participate" "It really is a feather in your hat for being a community player and builder and leader."

Reach reporter Jeff Duewel at 541-474-3720 or jduewel@thedailycourier.com