MANHATTAN — The Union Square Greenmarket is more closely associated with gourmet chefs than frugal shoppers. But the outdoor market’s popularity is skyrocketing with food stamp users, new city numbers show.
A total of $151,813 worth of merchandise was purchased with food stamps at the market in 2011— a whopping $105,000 more than in 2010.
“I think Union Square has a bit of a reputation because it is such a hub for chefs and people love to talk about the variety,” said Cheryl Huber, assistant director of Greenmarket for GrowNYC, which runs markets across the city and visits Union Square’s market at least once a week.
"It really is a hub for all sorts of communities,” she said, adding that she's met people from across the city, including many who are turning to assistance for the first time, as the economic slump continues.
“Everyday there’s someone new who comes to ask and is surprised they can use their EBT card,” she said.
The numbers at Union Square are part of a larger bump in food stamp use at greenmarkets city-wide, where spending rose nearly 25 percent in 2011, with over $620,000 in sales, officials said.
There are more than 40 greenmarkets around the city that accept food stamps under the Greenmarket EBT Initiative, a marked increase from the three that accepted the benefits in 2005. In Manahttan, they stretch from Bowling Green to Inwood.
While many assume that prices at the market are significantly higher, Huber said they're comparable on most produce, especially since items often last longer because they're fresh.
In addition to the boost in sales, Huber said that there’s also been a shift in the types of items food stamp users buy, with a greater percentage of benefits spent on fruits and veggies, instead of baked goods, including sweet treats likes cookies and cakes.
While officials say part of the boost is likely due to a stronger focus on healthy foods, they also credited partnerships with the City Council and the Food Bank for New York City, which have provided funding for card scanners as well as on-site screenings where people can answer questions to find out whether they’re qualified.
Officials hailed the numbers as a health boost for low-income communities.
“The dramatic increase in the use of food stamps at the markets this year is further evidence that, when given the opportunity, New Yorkers will choose to eat healthy,” City Councilwoman Annabel Palma, chair of the City Council’s General Welfare Committee, said.
The new numbers comes a day after City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called for an investigation following a drop in stamp use in November, 2011.
Some 13,000 fewer New Yorkers qualified for food stamps in November — the highest decrease in enrollment in more than a year, said Quinn, who described the drop as “alarming.”
A spokesman for the Human Resources Administration said it was not immediately clear what was responsible for the drop, but noted that fluctuations are normal and that the difference was less than half of one percent.
More than 1.8 million New Yorkers are currently on food stamps, according to the HRA.
The General Welfare Committee is expected to hold an oversight hearing to address the drop in the coming weeks.