On Sundays, the farmers market in Bangor bustles with customers.

Brilliant yellow squash, rich red beets, fresh green lettuces and a rainbow of other fruits and veggies are stacked in booths, ready for the choosing. Other booths have coolers teeming with meats, multi-hued cartons of eggs and a variety of cheeses.

In a tent near the entrance, volunteers from Food AND Medicine stand at the ready to process payments with credit cards and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

The Sunday market in Bangor is one of 37 markets across Maine accepting SNAP benefits this summer, up from 29 markets in 2013 — the first year the benefits could be used at farmers markets.

Maine joined other states in increasing the accessibility of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats to those who receive food assistance from the state.

“The idea is to get people into the market who wouldn’t otherwise be there,” Leigh Hallett, executive director of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, says. “The federation has been involved with several markets trying to test out several ways to make this work and try to provide a person to be in charge to run the program.”

So far, organizers believe their efforts have been successful. In its first year, nearly $122,000 in SNAP benefits were spent at farmers markets across the state, keeping the money in the local economy and encouraging more people to eat local.

“We have 140 farmers markets in Maine, and they represent hundreds and hundreds of farmers. It does seem the markets that are accepting [SNAP] do see the value. … Most farmers are really interested in food and in sustainable food and getting that to the local people,” Hallett says.

Several markets are also sweetening the deal by offering incentives to those using SNAP benefits at the market, which range from a 25 percent match to a one-to-one dollar match, with funds provided through donations.

At three markets in Bangor and Brewer, Food AND Medicine, a Brewer-based nonprofit, sponsors the markets, hosts education programs to introduce unfamiliar produce and mans the booth to help the market accept the benefits.

At these markets, Sweeney says there also is a 25 percent funds match available for shoppers using SNAP benefits this summer. Fundraising by Food AND Medicine from local organizations and businesses provides for the matching funds.

“It meets the mission of so many groups — even health care providers, for example, because they want their patients to be eating these kinds of foods,” Sweeney says.

What’s more is giving people more to spend means more money back into the local economy via the farmers — a win-win, according to Sweeney.

“We see this program as really benefiting the customers because they really have access to this at an affordable rate for them,” Sweeney says. “We get a ton of really great feedback from people that either this program has allowed them to increase their consumption of fresh produce or lets them buy a lot more.”

So far, the efforts of Food AND Medicine have been effective. During the 2013 season, about $28,000 in SNAP benefits were spent at the three markets the nonprofit sponsors, which amounted to about $64,000 with the matching benefits — it was offered at a 50 percent match up to $40 last season.

“That number is the second highest number in the state last year only after Portland,” Sweeney says.

Farmers market shopping

If you aren’t familiar with farmers market shopping, the experience is a little different from shopping in a grocery store.

“A lot of people aren’t accustomed to shopping at farmers markets, so there is a bit of a learning curve there,” Hallett says.

For instance, fresh greens need to be used as soon as possible once purchased. And other items, such as cucumbers, can go bad faster since they aren’t preserved with a waxy coating like at the grocery store.

Organizations such as Food AND Medicine are working to demystify farmers market shopping through classes and other educational offerings. Hallett said this is helpful to customers.

“You run into a lot of unusual vegetables at the farmers market,” she said.

On a recent day, Food AND Medicine used garlic scapes — the curly green tendrils that grow at the beginning of the garlic season and must be hacked off so the bulb can develop — to make a pesto that was offered for sampling.

Sweeney said it was a hit.

“When you are working with fresh local produce, it’s a different kind of cooking,” Hallett says. And indeed it is. Fresh peas cook to perfection in minutes. So do leafy greens. But corn on the cob? Your best bet is to steam it for 10-15 minutes. And carrots should be scrubbed, but you really don’t need to peel farm fresh carrots.

Find a market

Looking for a market that accepts SNAP benefits? Or just the market nearest you?

The new BDN Farmers Market tool (above) can help. Search by town and get instant information about which markets accept SNAP benefits, where they are and the market hours/days.

Find a market

Looking for a market that accepts SNAP benefits? Or just the market nearest you?

The BDN has launched a new Farmers Market Finder tool that can help. Search by town, and get instant information about which markets accept SNAP benefits, where they are and the market hours/days. Find it at bangordailynews.com/living/food.

Sarah Walker Caron is the senior editor, features, for the Bangor Daily News and the editor of Bangor Metro magazine. She’s the author of “Classic Diners of Maine,” and five cookbooks including “Easy...