Editorial: Pound-foolish Democrats deny healthy food to poor people

Everyone likes to save a little money. But penny-wise lawmakers were pound-foolish when they took a pass on a modest proposal to help provide poor people with healthy food.

Assembly Bill 2385 would have created a mechanism to dramatically scale up a small-but-successful program that for the past five years has been helping small farms and low-income families.

Known as Market Match, the program boosts the purchasing power of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – formerly known as food stamps – by matching the first $10 that they spend at farmers markets on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ten bucks may not sound like much. But last year, according to the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, which manages the program, that little 2-for-1 incentive leveraged about $238,000 in donations to generate more than $1.54 million in spending on healthy produce by about 37,000 SNAP families.

The main benefit was a healthier diet for a population that often has limited access to fresh produce and in which rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes have been soaring.

But Market Match also put money into the pockets of local growers at about 140 farmers markets, including 10 in and around Sacramento and Davis and more than a half dozen in the Fresno area.

Its success helped persuade Congress to include a $100 million set-aside in the 2014 federal Farm Bill to match incentives like Market Match dollar for dollar.

That’s exciting news for California, which has one out of 10 of the nation’s farmers markets and far too many low-income families. In theory, this state’s SNAP recipients and farmers should be first in line for a healthy chunk of those funds when they come online later this year.

But qualifying for grants can be a daunting process, and some farmers markets operate on a shoestring. That’s partly why poorer and less dense regions – the Inland Empire, for instance, or the areas around Modesto and Merced, or the coastal communities near San Luis Obispo – don’t yet offer incentives like Market Match.

AB 2385 would have given them a hand, directing the California Department of Food and Agriculture to create a framework to help smaller and less established markets attract federal dollars, either by applying in their behalf or possibly kicking in matching state money down the line.

The Assembly’s agriculture committee thought that was a good idea, and unanimously approved it. But the bill has stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, one among scores of small initiatives held every year for no good reason other than that little things add up and money needed to be saved somewhere.

That’s too bad.

The idea’s backers should keep trying. The Ecology Center estimates it could reach 250,000 SNAP shoppers and generate $10 million in sales for small farmers if California could qualify for just $2 million a year of those federal funds.

That’s $5 worth of fresh produce for every Market Match dollar. Last time we checked, that was a pretty good deal, five for the price of one.