Farmers Market Match Bill Advances

Low-income Californians could soon see their purchasing power doubled at farmers markets.

AB 1321, by Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), is designed to take advantage of federal money to create incentives for food stamp recipients to shop at farmers markets. The bill, approved last week by the Legislature, calls for the creation of state framework to collect and distribute public and private money to be used as matching funds for CalFresh beneficiaries buying produce at farmers markets.

“This is a great opportunity to expand on California’s Health in All Policies efforts,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center that operates a program called Market Match, the prototype for Ting’s bill.

“We’ve had some success with this kind of effort in local communities, and this legislation would allow it to grow statewide,” Bourque said.

Ting’s bill would establish the Nutrition Incentive Matching Grant Program in the Office of Farm to Fork, which is part of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The new state office would seek funding from the $100 million set aside for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program — known as FINI — in the federal farm bill of 2014. FINI encourages the purchase and consumption of fresh, locally grown produce.

“We must improve access to nutritious food. The healthiest choice should be the easiest choice,” Ting said after the Legislature approved his bill last week.

“Diet is the foundation for good health. We can expand access to our state’s bounty by enlisting farmers’ markets in the fight against hunger and malnutrition. As the drought pushes food prices upward, we can ease the squeeze on families still waiting for the economic recovery to benefit their bottom line,” Ting said.

Ting said California is following examples set by other states. Massachusetts and Washington have already launched programs seeking FINI funding, which became available in April.

“We should be getting more of these funds,” Ting said. “California is positioned to benefit from this program more than any other state because of our network of farmers markets and poverty challenges.”

Bourque agreed that California is particularly well-suited to take advantage of the federal program.

“While California is now the world’s seventh largest economy, we still have the highest poverty rate nationally,” Bourque said. “Limited resources for purchasing food has a dramatic impact on health and increases the risk of developing preventable chronic diseases, like diabetes, with disproportionate impacts on communities of color in California.”

More than 11 million Californians live in poverty, according to state officials, and four million have inadequate access to sufficient nutritious food, a predicament known as food insecurity.

Seeds Planted a Dozen Years Ago

The idea of leveraging government subsidized payment at farmers markets first cropped up a dozen years ago as a sort of bridge over a new digital divide.

“When food stamps went electronic in 2003, that basically meant that farmers got locked out of the SNAP economy,” Bourque said, referring to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which funds California’s CalFresh program.

“And it meant that the people who could most benefit from access to fresh, healthy food weren’t able to use their government program to get it,” Bourque said.

“We started looking for ways to make the new system work, first at three farmers markets in our community then at many others. We worked with the federal government, state government and local authorities to create a wireless point of sale system that allowed SNAP shoppers to use their CalFresh card at our farmers markets,” Bourque said.

Shoppers swipe their cards into electronic readers and are issued a paper scrip they can use to buy produce directly from growers.

About 400 farmers markets in California — roughly half of all the farmers markets in the state — now use the system.

Three years ago, the Ecology Center launched a new program — Market Match — that sought grants from both government and private sources to double the amount of produce low-income CalFresh beneficiaries could buy at farmers market.

About 230 California farmers markets participate in Market Match, Bourque said.

Ting’s bill, which also calls for government and private money to be included in the statewide matching pot, would allow current arrangements to continue and grow.

In April, the Ecology Center received a $3.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the Market Watch program over the next two years. It’s one of the first grants in the new FINI program. State and Market Match officials estimate the grant will help stimulate about $9.8 million in fruit and vegetable sales.

“And there are more financial impacts that will be harder to estimate, but they’re very real,” Bourque said. “By getting people to eat healthier food, they’ll be more like to stay healthy and help turn the tide in this trend toward chronic disease associated with diet. This program fits in very well with the new heath-consciousness around prevention,” Bourque said.

Widespread Support

Ting’s bill received bipartisan support in the Legislature. The Assembly voted 56-16 in favor, and the Senate approved the measure with a 30-8 vote.

Representatives of consumers and growers support the bill.

Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, said the bill would get financial help to areas most in need.

“AB 1321 would unlock FINI dollars more equitably, to areas in California where a nutrition incentive program has never existed and those that are disproportionately impacted by high rates of chronic disease, such as diabetes,” Morales said.

Mathew Marsom, vice president at the Public Health Institute, called the bill a “win-win.”

“We believe that California and the nation will be more healthy and resilient if we enhance food system infrastructures that make healthy food accessible and affordable. This bill contributes to the physical health of individuals, the economic health of small farms and rural communities. It is a win-win solution that cannot be missed,” Marsom said.

Noelle Cremers, director of Natural Resources and Commodities at the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the proposal will help both farmers and consumers.

“Investment in these match programs will benefit California’s farmers selling these products while making nutritious food more accessible for California’s most economically disadvantaged residents,” Cremers said.

No Word From Governor

Staff members in Ting’s office, as well as other stakeholders, were reticent to predict Gov. Jerry Brown’s (D) reaction to the bill. An earlier version of this legislation was introduced in the Legislature last year but did not win approval.

In some ways, the bill fits well under the five-year-old statewide Health in All Policies initiative designed to get California lawmakers and policy wonks to use a health lens when considering any and all policy issues.

Some proponents, including Bourque, said the Market Match idea should be embraced as part of a larger movement toward healthy living and preventive health care.

The Ecology Center has a track record for innovative ideas that started small and are now standard practice. It was the Ecology Center in 1973 that first proposed the idea of curbside recycling in some neighborhoods of Berkeley.

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