Oregon Trail Card holders can spend their government food assistance benefits at local farmers markets.

Savanah Gardner already had plans for what she would buy using her Oregon Trail Card at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.

"Tonight we'll make a delicious casserole for the kids with tomatoes and zucchini," the Ashland mother of two said this week as she swiped her card at the market information booth and received wooden tokens to use at vendors' booths.

The market is one of more than 5,000 farmers markets, roadside stands and you-pick operations across America that allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants to use their benefits to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, plant starts and other goods, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Oregon, SNAP participants use debit card-like Oregon Trail Cards, which replaced the more cumbersome food stamp program of years past.

Gardner said the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market's acceptance of the Oregon Trail Card allows her family to enjoy local, organic, delicious produce — while also helping farmers.

"We want to support local growers. If everyone is coming down here and pulling together, it goes back into local pockets," she said.

Gardner said Oregon Trail Card users can buy plant starts at the market, which allows them to grow their own food and stretch their benefits farther.

Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market General Manager Marcella Bell said accepting Oregon Trail Card benefits increases the customer base of vendors.

"It also gives people the opportunity to connect with food producers and be in tune with what's in season and what your area grows," Bell said.

One day's revenue for the Ashland market from Oregon Trail Cards ranges from $500 to $900, said Market Assistant Mitra Sticklen.

Oregon Trail Card users usually have more money to spend at the beginning of the month, and then less as the month goes on and they drawn down their accounts, she said.

SNAP participants spent more than $21 million in benefits at farmers markets and other direct-from-the-farmer venues last year, according to USDA data.

The USDA has made it a priority to improve direct access between farmers and SNAP participants over the past several years, said USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon.

"Healthy eating reduces health risks later in life, which helps reduce our nation's health costs over the long run," he said. "This new data shows that these efforts are working to provide farmers with a larger customer base and to provide families who use SNAP with more options to buy healthy food."

Talent resident Anna Humphreys, who was using her Oregon Trail Card benefits at the Ashland market, said the market's acceptance of the benefits helps vendors and card holders.

"It's a blessing for families who might not otherwise be able to afford this food," she said, noting she usually spends about $20 per week at the growers market. "If we're receiving government assistance, it's good to use it to assist farmers."

Vendor Jacob Evenich of Shoots Farm in Williams said he appreciates that the market has created a way for Oregon Trail Card holders to shop at the market. He collects the wooden tokens spent by participants throughout the market day, then turns them back in to market managers for cash.

The token system saves vendors the hassle and cost of dealing individually with debit, credit and Oregon Trail Cards.

"I think it's great. It encourages people to eat real, local food," Evenich said. "It definitely increases our business. It's definitely a positive."

The Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market accepts Oregon Trail Cards during its Tuesday Ashland market from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the National Guard Armory at 1420 E. Main St., its Thursday market from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Medford Armory at 1701 S. Pacific Highway, its Saturday market from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Oak Street in downtown Ashland and its Saturday market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Commons at the intersection of Sixth and Bartlett Streets in Medford.

During the Saturday market in Medford, Oregon Trail Card users will receive $6 in matching rewards for the first $6 of SNAP benefits they spend at the market.

For more information about the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, visit http://www.rvgrowersmarket.com/.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or by email at valdous@mailtribune.com.