Editorials

A nutrition program California should stop starving now

Bok choy is for sale at the Davis Farmers Market, where a pilot nutrition incentive project has increased sales to CalFresh recipients by up to 293 percent.
Bok choy is for sale at the Davis Farmers Market, where a pilot nutrition incentive project has increased sales to CalFresh recipients by up to 293 percent. Sacramento Bee file

Last year, California passed a modest bill that should have been a no-brainer. The California Nutrition Incentives Act set up a program to discount fruits and vegetables for CalFresh shoppers at farmers markets and farm stands.

Like the wholesome produce it was aimed at, the new program had ridiculous upsides: Healthier food for low-income families. More business for small farmers. Rural jobs. Matching federal dollars. An established pilot with a solid, years-long track record tied neatly to California’s version of food stamps.

All that remained was a little state money to attract matching funds authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill when, at the last minute – in a fit of fiscal restraint or low blood sugar, we aren’t sure which – state lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown blanked the appropriation.

Talk about penny-wise and pound foolish. If there were ever a piece of low-hanging fruit in the public health effort to curb obesity and Type 2 diabetes among Californians, this is it.

The 6-year-old pilot program for these nutrition incentives has been wildly successful, and it has only been matching the first $10 or so worth of purchases at farmers markets. In Davis, the program, known as Market Match, has increased CalFresh purchases at the farmers market by up to 293 percent.

In 2014, Market Match leveraged just $450,000 worth of incentives into more than $2 million in revenue for participating growers. With the mechanism in place to take the program statewide, food policy advocates have asked the state to invest $5 million – pocket change in a state budget topping $122 billion.

That small appropriation would draw down $5 million in federal matching funds from a $100 million pot, and leverage up to $60 million in additional purchases of fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Food policy advocates say those purchases, in turn, will generate some 1,900 jobs on small farms.

California’s failure to tap into these federal matching funds is the public health equivalent of food waste, and the state money involved is minimal. Market Match isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it’s a smart little program that could make a big difference. Let’s try not starving it this year.

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