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Farmer’s Markets now accept food stamps

Low-income individuals can use benefits for marke food

Food stamps have arrived at the farmers market. Since May, the Healdsburg and Petaluma Farmers Markets have begun swiping EBT cards — electronic debit cards used in lieu of food stamps — in return for locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats. Santa Rosa and Sebastopol also plan to join.
The first to accept the Electronic Benefits Transfer cards was the Healdsburg Farmers Market. Petaluma began accepting the cards in June, and the Santa Rosa market at the Veteran’s building and Sebastopol market will follow suit on August 14th and 15th respectively.
Here’s how it works: the market manager swipes the card, directly deducting the amount from the buyer’s account in exchange for tokens that can only be used at the farmers market. The tokens are used to buy food from the purveyors, who trade them in for cash at the end of the market day.
“A lot of food stamp offices have been hoping this would happen for a long time because they want clients to have access to healthier foods. In poorer neighborhoods, it’s fast foods and mini-markets, and access to fresh foods just isn’t there,” said Lisa Mann, a department analyst at the Sonoma County Human Services Department. “The sad fact is that Top Ramen is cheaper than organic produce. But for long-term health benefits, it’s obviously important to eat healthier,” she added.
Seen as a nutrition-assistance program for low-income individuals often prone to obesity and unhealthy eating, SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) advocates are working hard to motivate and educate people about the benefits of eating fresh food from their local farmers.
The Healdsburg market is a test case for the local program, and market manager Mary Kelley said she’s getting two to three food stamp recipients at the market each week.
“People are coming here to find things that are unique or unusual, and they want to be part of the community spirit. They come with their families,” said Kelley, who adds that she’s seeing a cross-section of demographics, including college grads who have lost or couldn’t find jobs in the recent economy.
With the average enrolled family receiving just $288 in assistance per month, many in the food world agree that fresh foods can seem out of reach both financially and geographically.
Packaged food is cheap, because the government subsidizes cheap foods. But we want people to know that they can afford food at the farmers market, and farmers want to make this work,” Kelley said.
As additional incentive, the Healdsburg and Santa Rosa markets have set up funds to match EBT amounts. For example, someone who spends $10 at the Healdsburg market will get an additional $10 in tokens to spend there. At Santa Rosa, they will get $5 for the first $10 spent. These funds have been created through personal donations to the market, which Kelley and Santa Rosa and Sebastopol market manager Paula Downing hope will continue to be replenished.
“I’m optimistic, but there’s a high educational and learning curve,” said Downing.
The Santa Rosa market will feature a luncheon for EBT card users on August 14, along with cooking demonstrations and recipes for using market foods in English and Spanish.
Local youth from the VOICES program and CHOPS teen club, which serve underprivileged youth, are also expected to get involved with the Santa Rosa program.
“When you involve people in the business of food, they don’t have to eat out of a package,” Downing said.
Concerns over increased bookkeeping and administrative expensees – the wireless card-system alone costs $1,000 – threatened to derail the program as a state bill requiring California farm markets to accept electronic food stamps cards by 2012 began making its way through the state Legislature in February. It now resides in the Senate.
But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has since agreed to shoulder the cost of the card systems. Healdsburg’s Kelley acknowledges she’s putting in several hours of extra bookkeeping for the handful of food stamp clients she’s seen each week at the market. But she is so far encouraged by the program.
Refuting the idea that farmers markets are more expensive, Kelley said that while some produce may be commanding a premium, most everyday seasonal produce is comparable or even less that that in grocery stores.
“So much of supporting farmers markets is about changing habits,” she said. “I want people to get over misconceptions that we’re more expensive.”
In Sonoma County, there are currently more than 20,000 individuals participating in the federal food stamp program, including 14,000 children. Local enrollment has grown by more than 65 percent in the past two years. Nationwide, 40.2 million American rely on food stamps, according to USDA statistics. According to the Sonoma County Human Services Department, nearly all local benefits are spent locally and stay in the community.
“Our local farmers and farmers markets get the benefits of these dollars and low-income families have a chance to purchase fruits and vegetables so fresh they might have been picked from the farm that morning. Everybody wins,” said Marion Deeds, Director of the Economic Assistance Division within the Sonoma County Human Services Department.

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12 thoughts on “Farmer’s Markets now accept food stamps

  1. Cotati Farmers Market is working on getting the EBT/food stamp program up and running. It should be available in the next couple of weeks.

  2. Thank you for getting the word out about affordable food at the Farmers’ Markets, Heather. Healdsburg was fortunate to get volunteer support to get this ball rolling. Maybe other volunteers can lend a hand to Sonoma and other markets.

  3. This is good news. On another note, it would be nice if the farmers markets would not allow vendors who sell products from outside Sonoma County. My go to question to vendors “Is this grown/made/produced in Sonoma County?” Recently a vendor said no, he was from Fresno. Not the first time I’ve heard this from several local farmers markets.

  4. It’s disheartening to hear people criticizing those who use food stamps. Rather than questioning their choices, or motivations, or how long they have been using them, let’s focus on our energy on getting the word out that options like the Farmers’ Markets do exist and are happy to take EBT cards. Because, let’s face it, folks, none of us can claim to truly understand someone else’s lot in life.
    Let’s put a little positive energy into letting people know about these programs. I am really excited to hear about this program.

    1. This is helpful in many way’s since most low income people on food stamps are also getting CMSP or Medical , the healthier they are the less their health care costs. The added benefit is that the healthier they are the more likely they are to have the energy to find work. When your out of work its easy to get discouraged,feel lousy about your self ( especially since people find it so entertaining to criticize people who are struggling) and even get depressed. all of which can lead to eating high fat high carb high salt comfort food, that can make you feel even worse in the long run.
      Getting out to the farmers market where you are out side in the fresh air meeting people,maybe listening to live music and buying beautiful healthy food interacting with the people who actually grow it, can make a real difference in your health.
      Take the kids with you and it a difference that carries on into the next generation!

  5. I wish the Sonoma Valley Farmers Markets would accept Food stamps too~
    The community in need would have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
    Let’s see if the Sonoma can catch up?

  6. How long can one stay on food stamps? Are there any checks and balances to make sure people are not on them for years and years?

    1. Yes, there is a bit of a checks and balances to the program… At least here in Sonoma County… There are quarterly reports that need to be filled out about income (if there is a change in any direction) status… If it goes over a certain limit, then the Food Stamps are discontinued and the people have to re-apply if they drop below a certain level.
      There are also programs, like Joblink, that they may get referred to as well, to help with job skills and finding jobs…
      This is a tough economy and finding paying jobs is difficult! (speaking from experience as an under-employed person here!)

  7. Now living far away from Sonoma County, and having grown up in a single-mom family reliant on food stamps, I was thrilled to read that the prolific bounty of Sonoma County farms is being made accessible to families in need. I am especially glad to hear that some generous individuals are providing matching funds for purchases in the farmer’s markets, and that so many organizations and volunteers are also donating their time and experience. This is truly one of the most heart-warming stories I have read in some time. I hope the word spreads quickly and penerates the communities that will benefit most from the incredible generosity of the individuals and farmers who will no doubt improve the quality of life for so many people. I’m sure that more than a few buyers in this program will find an extra tomato or onion in their bag from time to time as well. Bravo! Signed, CT from NC

  8. About time this happened, I agree – this is much better than buying T.V dinners, Syrup specials and junk for your family. I am glad that at least here, in Sonoma we’re doing something really positive and more importantly helping to feed people healthy food.
    Can’t beat it!!

  9. At least they’re buying healthy food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people purchasing instant corn syrup laden foods with food stamps. Personally, I think food stamps should only be good for healthy nutritional food. You shouldn’t be able to buy T.V. dinners with food stamps.

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