Market Match program encourages EBT spending at farmers markets
This article originally appeared in the South Bay Daily Breeze
With tight budgets and children to feed, recipients of federal nutrition assistance were rarely seen at farmers markets, where the words “affordable” and “fresh” often didn’t mix.
That’s changing, thanks to a state program that is in line to get a big boost in federal support.
More and more recipients are stepping up to market managers’ tables, swiping their card from CalFresh (nationally know at SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and getting a bonus good for fresh produce.
Under the program, called Market Match, CalFresh recipients can get up to $10 a week in bonus scrip for fruits and vegetables for every $10 they spend at farmers markets. More than 30,000 CalFresh participants have used the scrip at 130 markets statewide, creating over $1 million in additional income for farmers at these markets.
“Instead of being punitive, we like to incentivize healthy food choices,” said Carle Brinkman of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, which assists farmers markets statewide with implementation of electronic benefit transfer programs.
“We can give customers who wouldn’t normally shop at farmers markets a boost and at the same time send additional funds to small and medium-size farmers,” she added.
The program is offered at 18 farmers markets in Los Angeles County, said Frank Tamborello, director of nonprofit Hunger Action LA, which is involved in Market Match.
The Saturday farmers market in Gardena — which dates to 1977, making it the county’s oldest, Tamborello said — at the corner of El Segundo Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue is the only one in the South Bay that offers Market Match.
Manager Ida Edwards said the program at the market is three years old and is still growing in popularity. “Usually, we give out about $400 to $500 a week in Market Match,” Edwards said.
The city has about 5,400 CalFresh beneficiaries, according to the county Department of Public Social Services, which has declared May as CalFresh Awareness Month.
Countywide, only 59 percent of residents eligible for the program actually receive benefits, even though the number of beneficiaries reached a record high of almost 1.2 million in a county with a population of 10 million, the DPSS said.
There is interst in bringing the Market Match program to Torrance, too. The city has more than 3,400 CalFresh beneficiaries, while neighboring Lomita and Lawndale combined have more than 4,500.
“We want to add four to eight markets in the next six months,” Tamborello said. “I was mentioning Torrance as a possible location for one of the next markets we do.’
Torrance farmers market manager Joyce Chan previously worked at a nonprofit group that was involved with bringing the CalFresh Electronic Benefit Transfer program — essentially a debit card that replaced the old food stamps— to local farmers markets.
“I plan to bring EBT into the farmers market pretty soon, maybe within six months,” Chan said. “People are on food stamps (here) and don’t necessarily talk about it. … There is a huge percentage of people who are working poor and those people have a right to fresh healthy produce.”
But at the moment, only one stall at the market in Torrance accepts EBT cards.
“You’d be surprised how much EBT there is at this market,” said Oscar Diaz, an employee at the Arnett Farms stall. “It’s about 10 percent of our sales.”
Federal and state officials are trying to expand the Market Match program to help stem an old problem: low-income recipients using federal nutrition assistance to purchase unhealthy products, particularly high sugar sodas and junk food.
The matching money comes from the California Market Match Consortium, which was founded five years ago by farmers market operators and community organizations. The consortium is funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture and a variety of private donors. Recently, the Los Angeles County agency First 5 LA, which draws on tobacco tax money to help programs benefitting young children, became a partner.
More funding is on the way.
The 2014 Farm Bill allocated $100 million over the next five years for healthy incentive programs. A new California bill (AB 2385) is aiming for state funds to capture federal dollars to further expand Market Match throughout the state.
SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, feeds one in seven people in the nation. It dispenses $8 billion in California. But beneficiaries of the program, especially children, also suffer high rates of obesity and diabetes, which has been linked to cheaper, sugary foods.
California has the most diabetics in the nation, and spending in the state to treat the disease in 2012 approached $28 billion, according to American Diabetes Association data.
New York City tried to ban the use of SNAP funds for buying high sugar drinks in 2010. Beverage manufacturers and some civil libertarians objected, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, vetoed the idea.
In lieu of curbing the supply of junk food — a politically unattractive option— public health advocates are working hard to change the demand by making healthy food cheaper and more attractive.
The question now is will the incentives change decades of entrenched habits.
Initial signs are positive.
In Massachusetts, a USDA Healthy Incentives pilot project followed 55,000 SNAP households for a year; some were credited with 30 cents for every dollar spent on targeted produce. Spending on fruits and vegetables was higher for those receiving incentives at a rate that was both “statistically significant and … nutritionally relevant,” the study concluded.
And a recent survey by the California consortium found that nearly three of four Market Match shoppers came specifically for the match. They leave with bags of fresh produce and new ideas from nutrition classes frequently held in conjunction with Market Match.
At one market recently, a rapt audience of about 20 women and children absorbed a “Rethink Your Drink” lesson as a dietitian stirred a frosty pitcher of ice water laced with mint and cucumber slices.
Delicious, several women agreed, and even cheaper than soda.
Fleishman writes for the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting at USC Annenberg. Green is a staff writer at the Daily Breeze.