New program matches Cal Fresh purchases at local farmers’ markets
Before you can teach people how to eat healthy, Jenni Dye says, it’s best to back up and consider: Do they have access to healthy food in the first place?
In rural areas like Butte County—even in communities surrounded by agricultural land—the answer usually is “no.” Dye saw that problem firsthand while growing up in the small farming community of Fall River Mills in Shasta County, and her education as a registered dietitian has reinforced the concept that increasing the availability of fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables is the best way to get more people eating and living well.
That’s why encouraging people to shop at farmers’ markets is her main focus as a program manager at the Center for Healthy Communities (CHC), a nonprofit under the Chico State Research Foundation. By promoting food access and providing nutrition education, Dye and her colleagues work on the preventative side of public health (rather than at, say, a hospital), but she says the benefits of buying from local farmers extends beyond physical wellness.
“If you compare shopping in a grocery store to a farmers’ market, there are so many more social interactions; it feels more community-based,” she said. “It’s about eating healthy and getting to know people, as well.”
To that end, CHC is rolling out a new program at Chico Certified Farmers’ Markets throughout Butte County called Market Match. Here’s the gist: Locals enrolled in Cal Fresh—commonly called food stamps and federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—can stop by the market manager’s booth, slide their EBT card and receive wooden tokens they can exchange at any vendor. But that’s business as usual; the new part is that CHC now matches up to $20, for use toward the purchase of fruits and veggies.
Market Match is part of the nonprofit’s ongoing efforts to increase awareness of and enrollment in the Cal Fresh program. Dye hopes the financial incentive will foster long-lasting connections between shoppers and farmers, encourage low-income residents and families to take home healthy produce, and direct more dollars into the pockets of local farmers. The program will be offered at the year-round Wednesday market at the North Valley Plaza, and at the seasonal markets in Paradise and Oroville, which close for the winter this month. It may roll out soon at the Saturday market at Second and Wall streets as well, but Cal Fresh transactions are already a booming business there.
As a side benefit, the program has increased foot traffic at the smaller, less-crowded markets. During a recent Wednesday market, Cal Fresh users redeemed about $600 of Market Match and several vendors sold out.
“That’s kind of a big deal,” Dye said. “We were seeing empty tables, which is not usually the case on Wednesday because it’s mid-week. That was great to see for the farmers.”
Market Match is supported by a roughly $50,000 grant awarded by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, and it’s an established and successful program in the Bay Area and Southern California. There’s been a recent push to expand it in rural areas thanks to Assembly Bill 1321, which authorized more than $3 million to expand Market Match in high-need communities.
By adopting the program, the local markets joined a consortium of more than 280 certified farmers’ markets statewide.
Matt Davis is a manager for the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, where he oversees the Saturday morning market in downtown Chico as well as the Tuesday and Thursday markets in Paradise. Like Dye, he says Market Match is a good way to support local farmers and establish social connections.
“The biggest thing is the connection between the customer and the farmer,” Davis said. “That allows people to learn about where their food comes and the health benefits of those products versus what you find at chain grocery stores and fast-food places.”
Once customers make those connections, Davis hopes they become lifelong market shoppers, even if they stop using Cal Fresh benefits. Not only does that make for healthier lifestyles, but it also keeps dollars flowing through the local economy.
And that’s not to mention the environmental benefits of supporting local growers. According to Davis, small and mid-size farmers are often more innovative than corporate growers when it comes to sustainability and incorporating the latest research into their practices.
“They’re operating on a smaller scale, so it’s easier to make a change,” he said. “They’re not set in their ways.”
CHC’s contract for the Market Match program will expire next June, but Dye says she is fairly confident the Ecology Center will continue funding the program past that point. Meanwhile, it also may expand to surrounding counties.
While it’s easy to track how much money is redeemed under Market Match, it’s more difficult to quantify how the program is impacting human health, Dye said. However, the Ecology Center has found that nearly four out of five Market Match users become long-term farmers’ market shoppers, and that can only be positive.
“They just keep coming back,” Dye said. “It’s almost like they’re hooked on fresh fruits and vegetables—on local food.”