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Food stamps, local foods and simple credit-card swipe technology come together this weekend at one of Missoula's downtown farmers markets.

The Clark Fork River Market, near the Clark Fork River under the Higgins Avenue Bridge, is setting up a swipe machine to accept food stamps, the first Montana market to do so since food stamps became "EBT" cards.

EBT stands for electronic benefit transfer, the credit-card style way that food stamp money is now distributed.

Niraja Golightly is thrilled.

"Vegetables. Basil. Broccoli," she says, naming off her favorite fresh foods. "Food and nutrition are really important to me."

When food stamps came in coupon books, recipients could buy local produce at participating markets. But when food stamps went electronic, low-income families needed cash at the market, or had to buy their produce elsewhere, where swipe machines had power and telephone lines.

Creative Catering, located in the Wilma building, has agreed to let the Clark Fork Market use its phone line for the swipe machine. The machine will be at the information kiosk at the market.

Recipients swipe their cards for a requested amount, and receive wooden tokens worth $1 or $2. Tokens can be used only at the Clark Fork River Market and must be spent that day.

"Everyone benefits from this," said Bonnie Buckingham of the Missoula Food Bank and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. "Farmers, ranchers, low-income families and the local economy."

"Whatever is good for our customers is good for vendors," said orchard owner Pam Clevenger, who also is on the board of directors of the market. Vendors who participate - they aren't required to - collect the tokens just as money, and then are reimbursed.

"My hope is that we can be an example for other markets around Montana," said Mary Ellen Carter, marketmaster for the Clark Fork River Market. "There is a lot of excitement about eating local foods, and I'm excited that this will open up that movement to everyone, and that it opens the market to people of different incomes."

For now, only the Clark Fork Market is involved, although the program may expand next year. Organizers also hope to raise money or seek grants to buy wireless EBT machines in the future, which could allow credit-card and debit-card purchases as well.

Golightly, who moved to Montana to escape domestic violence, attend school and be with family, said she receives $77 to $150 a month in food stamps to feed herself and her 13-year-old son.

"I rely heavily on food stamps and have to be very careful with money," she said. "I didn't have the cash for the market."

The market is also a social event, part of Missoula's charm, and "we are both excited to experience that," she said. "The market is a way to connect to the greater community."

To market, to market

The Clark Fork River Market is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 21 next to Caras Park, on the east side of the Higgins Avenue Bridge.

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