It’s not uncommon to see people at Newark’s Canal Market District paying for their food with wooden tokens. 

The Canal Market District hosts a farmers market from 4-7 p.m. every Friday, May through October. It’s a producer-only market, which means all vendors have to make or grow their own products. Every week, the market hosts more than 40 local food businesses. 

It operates like most traditional farmers markets but has something special to provide to the community: The market accepts SNAP.

SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and was formerly known as food stamps. This federal program provides monthly benefits to individual people and families who are deemed low-income, and about 18,325 people in Licking County rely on it to feed their families, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services

And the Canal Market, located just south of Courthouse Square in Newark, is within walking distance of neighborhoods with some of the highest poverty rates in the city. While there is a Save A Lot store on East Main Street, there are no full-service grocery stores in the neighborhoods immediately west, north and south of downtown.

SNAP is provided in the form of an electronic card, similar to a debit card with a set amount of money on it. 

At Canal Market District, these wooden tokens are used in place of SNAP benefits. People simply need to run their SNAP card at the main table at the center of the market and then they are given tokens in exchange before shopping for food. 

Thanks to a Licking County Foundation grant, the market is also able to match up to $100 on all SNAP transactions — meaning every dollar a SNAP recipient spends at the market gets them another dollar to spend. And a statewide program called Produce Perks Midwest matches an additional $25 on SNAP transactions for just fresh fruits and vegetables. 

“If they’re spending $100 on the SNAP card, they’re getting $100 in additional money,” said Bailey McCoy, executive director of the Canal Market District. “We have seen just an overwhelming positive response from shoppers in the community and people who’ve shared how much our match program has impacted their lives and allowed them to buy more food for their families.”

To spread the word, Licking County Job and Family Services will send out a mailer to families on SNAP to let them know about the market. 

The market also accepts WIC, another supplementary nutrition program. WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children and provides assistance to mothers and children up to age 5. Some vendors also accept senior coupons, which reduce  the cost of food for senior citizens. 

In addition, the market has a partnership with Licking Memorial Hospital and has created a vegetable prescription program. The hospital can prescribe fruits and vegetables to people who have a chronic or diet-related illness. People can then bring their prescription card to the market and get tokens in exchange. 

The Canal Market District also brings in food trucks, live music and kids activities for the market. Their goal is to create a welcoming and family-friendly environment, as well as to tackle the issue of food insecurity in the Newark area. 

“Our mission is improving access to healthy food in the community and growing local food business,” McCoy stated. 

Despite Licking County’s close proximity to a major city, much of the county has limited access to healthy, affordable food. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture, which tracks the number of grocery stores and fast food restaurants in every county in the U.S., shows Licking had just 0.13 grocery stores per 1,000 people in 2016 — among the lowest in the state

And much of Licking County could be considered a food desert, meaning the area “has limited access to affordable and nutritious food, usually in impoverished areas in both urban and rural settings,” according to the Ohio Developmental Disabilities Council

That’s something McCoy and the Canal Market District hope to combat. 

“We know that there are a lot of people in our community experiencing food insecurity,” McCoy said. “We have a heavy focus on food access and accepting any kind of program that we can to be able to get food into the hands of people that need it most.” 

One of the vendors at the market is Bird’s Haven Farms, a family owned farm in Granville that’s been operating for 29 years. 

Plenty of people come to their table and pay using wooden tokens.

“It makes me really excited that they’re making it more accessible for people to get fresh produce,” said McKayla RowLee, an employee of Bird’s Haven.

Hannah Plympton has been coming to Canal Market District for about six years. She works for Ohio City Pasta, a Cleveland-based pasta company. 

She also sees plenty of the wooden tokens. 

“It’s easy. I know a lot of us don’t take cards, and if you don’t have cash it’s the best bet,” Plympton said. 

Travis Osterholt and Ryan Edgington are the owners of R&T Treats, a home bakery business based in Newark. This is their first year as vendors at the Canal Market District. They also sell their baked goods at the Granville and Johnstown farmers markets. The duo bakes about 300 loaves of sourdough bread per week. They also cater weddings and bake cookies, cakes and cupcakes.

Osterholt likes that he’s able to accept the SNAP tokens at the market.

“I think it’s such a wonderful idea,” he said. “It helps encourage small businesses and helps the community out.”

Ellie Owen writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.