Despite woeful numbers, Sacramento hopes to grow food-stamp spending at farmers markets

The county meted out more than $360 million in CalFresh assistance last year, but only about $72,500 of that went to markets

Sacramento County doles out hundreds of millions in food-stamp dollars each year—but hardly any is spent at farmers markets.

Sacramento County doles out hundreds of millions in food-stamp dollars each year—but hardly any is spent at farmers markets.

photo by dave kempa

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink.

Xochitl Bautista of J & J Ramos Farms rings up another bag of oranges as her co-workers pack up on a sunny Thursday morning in the parking lot outside of the Sears on Florin Road. “Right now, we’ve got seasonal fruit. Very good, full of vitamins,” she says in Spanish. Strawberries, tomatoes, mandarins. Even dried fruit and walnuts.

“It’s very good, because the people can get fresh fruit that’s better than they’ll find in the stores,” Bautista explains. And she isn’t talking about her average customer; she means CalFresh food-stamp participants, who’ve been able to use their EBT—or Electronic Benefit Transfer—cards at this location for the past two years.

CalFresh has proven to be a welcome addition to seven of the county’s farmers markets, and Sacramento County has worked hard to increase rates of participation in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Still, only a fraction of a fraction of a percent of county CalFresh dollars make their way to farmers through the region’s markets.

While Sacramento County meted out more than $360 million in CalFresh assistance last year, only about $72,500 of that went to farmers markets—about two-one-hundredths of a percent.

“There’s always room for more,” said Kerin Gould of Alchemist Community Development Corporation. “We do want to encourage people to come out.”

Alchemist is the nonprofit organization that processes CalFresh EBT dollars at most of the farmers markets in Sacramento and Yolo counties. In recent years, this small operation has worked to address food-access issues in the region, dating back to its first Urban Farm Stand project in downtown’s Alkali Flat and Mansion Flats neighborhoods in 2007.

“I think it’s a myth that low-income families would prefer less healthy food or are lazy about nutrition,” Gould said. “There are a bunch of things in the way, and one of them is physical access.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 60 percent of California adults are overweight, and almost one-quarter of the state suffers from obesity. Studies from the Food Research & Action Center find that people experiencing food insecurity are at higher risk of obesity than those who are not, since they are more likely to focus on caloric intake for their families than nutritional value.

Some poorer communities are referred to as “food deserts,” because they do not provide access to the kinds of stores or markets that sell fresh, healthy food at affordable prices. These areas are instead more likely to have convenience stores or fast-food restaurants as primary food sources. Lower-income families also are less likely to have either the time or the reliable transportation necessary for grocery shopping, so access to fresh, affordable food is a public-health concern.

This is why groups such as Alchemist work to increase access to healthy food for low-income families, providing information on public-transportation routes to farmers markets and encouraging convenience stores in food deserts to carry fresh produce.

One effort that Alchemist has found particularly effective is Market Match. Now entering its third year, the Market Match program comps CalFresh recipients $5 for every $10 spent at participating farmers markets.

“It’s probably the most effective means at getting CalFresh recipients to come down to the farmers markets,” said Davida Douglas, executive director of Alchemist. “It not only increases number of shoppers, but increases the dollar amount that they’re spending there at the market.”

Market Match is set to begin again this year on May 18, and will last through the summer, or until Alchemist runs out of the funds, which it raised over the winter. Last year, Douglas said Alchemist processed 3,674 Market Match transactions in Sacramento County, issuing some $9,900 matching dollars to more than 1,500 recipients.

Last winter, Sacramento County issued a press release trumpeting that CalFresh participation rates had jumped from 70 percent of residents eligible for the benefits in 2009 to almost 91 percent in 2012.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that for every dollar delivered from federal SNAP assistance, $1.79 is generated in the economy.

The accepted logic, then, is that the county’s jump in CalFresh participation should help to spur the region’s economic well-being. Sacramento County estimates that CalFresh revenue in the county rose from about $400 million in 2010 to almost $490 million in 2012.

But the benefits from CalFresh could be magnified at farmers markets.

Renae Best, who along with Dan Best runs almost a dozen farmers markets throughout the county, says that CalFresh and its Market Match program are a twofold boon to the region.

“I’m glad to see that people are cooking and using raw ingredients, and families with children are getting fresh fruit,” said Best, who has been running local farmers markets for more than 30 years.

“Even if the money is coming federally, it is staying in California,” Best said. “It’s keeping our farmland in food production, which is protecting our food supply.”

Maybe that’s worth more than two-one-hundredths of a percent of our attention.