New program aids farmers markets, poor families
Seeking to help local farmers and put more nutritious foods on the plates of poor families, the federal government and North Bay nonprofits are teaming up to expand a program that doubles low-income shoppers’ spending power when they buy fruit and vegetables at farmers markets.
Under the expanded Market Match program, local food stamp recipients will be able to allocate $10 to $20 of their monthly benefits and in return receive $20 to $40 worth of paper scrip or wooden coins to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. The program is slated to be available June at 11 farmers markets in Sonoma and Marin counties.
A few fledgling incentive programs already have been underway in Sonoma County. Both farmers and low-income shoppers say those efforts provide more food for the buyers and extra sales for growers.
“I think it’s a great program to encourage people to eat real food,” Oasis Community Farms owner Wayne Morgenthaler said Tuesday as he shelled fava beans at the Petaluma East Side Farmers Market.
The market at Lucchesi Park allows low-income residents to swipe their state-sponsored electronic benefits card at the market information booth, using $10 from their accounts in exchange for $20 in wooden tokens to buy produce.
In the next two years, Market Match is forecast to provide financial incentives to 240,000 low-income shoppers and to spur $9.8 million in fruit and vegetable sales from 2,200 farmers around the state, according to the Ecology Center in Berkeley, which runs the program.
For the North Bay, about $80,000 in federal funds will be provided to shoppers in the next two years, to be augmented by funds from local groups.
“What’s great about the Market Match program is you’re helping many people with the same dollars,” said Ecology Center spokeswoman Carle Brinkman. The program has 30 regional partners working at 230 farmers markets in the state, an increase from about 150 last year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture used funds from the 2014 farm bill to award $31.5 million nationally for its farm market incentive program, funneling $3.7 million to California.
It increases the spending power of people enrolled in CalFresh, the state’s version of the federal food stamps program formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. More than 60 percent of the program’s participants are children, senior citizens and those with disabilities. More than four in 10 live in a household where at least one adult is working.
In Sonoma County, the incentives will be available at three farmers markets in Petaluma, plus those in Cotati, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Healdsburg and at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. In Marin County, the participating markets are in Marinwood, Novato and Fairfax.
Low-income shoppers with CalFresh electronic benefits cards currently spend up to $3,800 a month at county farmers markets, said Suzi Grady of the Petaluma People Services Center, which is coordinating the local effort with the Ecology Center. The market sales represents a tiny fraction of the $5.4 million that Grady estimates is spent monthly in the county for food by CalFresh clients.
If the incentive program can increase farm market sales by even a relatively modest amount, “it would have a significant impact on business for small-scale farmers,” said Grady, who runs the organization’s Petaluma Bounty program.
The local markets qualified for the federal aid by raising matching money from such local groups as Kaiser Permanente, St. Joseph Health, Petaluma Healthcare District, Slow Food Russian River and the Santa Rosa Sunrise Rotary Club.
“Donors in general love to have their money leveraged,” said Larry Martin, a member of the Rotary club. The combination of public and private aid can provide children with a significant source of healthy food, he said.
On Tuesday at the Lucchesi Park market, two shoppers using the wooden tokens declined to be named but agreed that the program allows them to stretch their dollars while buying local, naturally grown food.
Farmer Corrie Leisen, a partner in Garden Earth Farms in Santa Rosa, said on some days close to 10 percent of his sales involve shoppers using the wooden tokens.
With the program, he said, “they buy produce they probably wouldn’t be able to afford.”
You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @rdigit.