USDA gives $560,000 to boost access to Sacramento-area farmers markets

A federal grant is helping people use their CalFRESH benefits cards to buy produce at area farmers markets.
A federal grant is helping people use their CalFRESH benefits cards to buy produce at area farmers markets. Sacramento Bee file

Every Saturday at the Oak Park Farmers Market in Sacramento, low-income shoppers can swipe their federal assistance debit cards to pay for fresh fruits, vegetables and other edibles. That electronic access is part of a nationwide effort to make farmers markets as accessible as the local grocery store and boost sales for America’s small growers.

This week, the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture announced about $21.4 million in federal grants to support farmers markets, including about $560,000 for Sacramento-area groups. Part of that funding will help expand the use of SNAP electronic food stamp cards at farmers markets. (SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is called CalFresh in California.) Currently, about 519 farmers markets and farm stands in California accept CalFresh debit cards, the USDA said.

“Our goal is to increase the number of access points (for SNAP),” said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, in a conference call with reporters. “It provides access to healthier eating for low-income families … and puts those dollars back into the local economy to support local farmers and ranchers.”

Citing California’s “creativity” in expanding low-income families’ access to farmers markets, the USDA earmarked about $1 million to help reach an estimated 350 farmers markets that do not accept CalFresh debit cards.

In the past five years, Concannon said, the number of U.S. farmers markets and farm stands accepting SNAP debit cards has climbed from 900 to 6,400.

One of the USDA grant recipients is NeighborWorks Sacramento, which oversees the Oak Park Farmers Market and received about $52,000 to expand its programs for low-income families. Opened in 2010, the market lets CalFresh recipients use their debit cards to buy a range of fresh produce and other foods.

“It’s definitely working,” said Sharon Eghigian, NeighborWorks community impact manager, who said the number of families as well as dollars spent using EBT debit cards has increased 15 percent every year.

At the Oak Park market, which runs May through October, an average of 50 families a week swipe their CalFresh card at a central location and receive tokens that can be spent at local growers’ booths on eligible purchases (no hot or prepared foods). As an incentive, Rabobank N.A. matches the CalFresh withdrawals dollar for dollar, up to $20 per week. Farmers turn in the tokens and are reimbursed in cash.

“It translates into greater purchasing power for these families. And they have locally grown, healthy foods that are at their peak of freshness and nutritional quality,” said Eghigian. She said the grant money will be used to encourage more low-income families to use the market and add more meet-the-farmer events and healthy cooking demonstrations.

Other regional recipients of the USDA funding are the CSU Chico Foundation ($250,000), the Health Education Council in West Sacramento ($240,000) and the El Dorado County Trails Farm Association in Placerville ($16,000).

The Berkeley-based Ecology Center, a pioneer in expanding electronic food stamp access at California farmers markets, received about $243,000. Its ecologycenter.org website maintains a Farmers’ Market Finder, which lists California farmers markets that honor CalFresh cards.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck