Since its implementation nearly two years ago, a program aimed at improving access to farmers markets for people on food stamps has provided more than $175,000 in produce to CalFresh users in Sonoma and Marin counties.

The program was launched in the North Bay by Petaluma Bounty, a group under the umbrella of Petaluma People Services Center. Market Match, as it is known, is an incentive program that encourages CalFresh users to improve their intake of fruits and vegetables by offering a dollar-for-dollar match of up to $20 at participating markets.

In Sonoma County, there are 12 markets participating in the match program, plus two in Marin County.

“It’s very hard for consumers to make larger changes in their lifestyles such as going to farmers markets when they’re not sure if they’re going to have that incentive,” said Suzi Grady, program director for Petaluma Bounty.

Her group partnered with Santa Rosa’s Center for Well-Being to spread the word about the program, working closely with the center’s “promotores de salud,” or “health promoters,” some of whom use CalFresh themselves.

Farmers markets that choose to participate don’t get any incentives, but find the small amount of additional administrative time it takes to participate worth it.

“The community benefits, and their growing customer pool makes it worthwhile,” Grady said.

Petaluma Bounty also worked to coordinate farmers market tours, including nutritional education and recipes for how to use the fresh produce.

“Some of the complexities of that lifestyle change of going to farmers markets are that it can be inconvenient for people with busy schedules, that when you buy more fresh fruits and vegetables you often have to spend more time cooking and preparing them,” Grady said. “Bringing nutrition education and people to those farmers markets who could help with that skill building or help give additional resources was (taking it to) that next level.”

According to the Sonoma County Department of Human Services, there are about 31,000 people in the county with CalFresh benefits.

Before the Market Match program came to the North Bay in June 2015, low-income shoppers were spending about $3,800 in CalFresh dollars at farmers markets, Grady estimated.

In July, the busiest month for farmers markets, $6,222 was spent in CalFresh dollars — more than doubling what was spent before the program began. On top of that, $4,653 in matching dollars was handed out to CalFresh farmers market users.

Between June 2015 and March 2017, more than $97,000 in CalFresh money was spent at farmers markets and groceries while CalFresh also distributed nearly $78,000 in matching dollars.

“There’s no one solution, but we’re lucky to live in a county where human services and health services are coming together to talk about how we can make all these options known,” Grady said.

“Health services and human services are not necessarily focused on making farmers markets the answer, but they’re focused on making sure that everyone on CalFresh knows where it’s accepted, and helping them understand how they can eat more healthfully.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.