Funding to California program connecting low income residents to fresh produce at risk

At the Downtown San Leandro Farmers Market Wednesday evening, people perused the tables full of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, baked goods, homemade tamales, and other fresh items.

At a time when inflation has many people trying to stretch their dollars as they buy groceries, the farmers' market held a bonus.

"I didn't know you can use food stamps at the farmers' market," said Alexa Velarde of Oakland.

She found another surprise, ending up with a bit of extra cash to spend.

The market run by Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association is one of many markets that accepts food stamps known as Cal Fresh, as well as WIC checks for low-income families.

Shoppers can take their EBT cards to the information tent and cash in.

But they also get a bonus through a program called Market Match which allows people on food benefits to double their money up to a certain limit.

"So they come to us first, and they get their money out and we match up to $10 that they take off their card," said Ryann DiBasilio, the manager of the Downtown San Leandro Farmers' Market, "So they get an extra 10 that can be spent on fruits and veggies, anywhere in the market."

The market provides the bonus vouchers that can be used at the vendors for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Families struggling to make ends meet say the program is a big help.

"I felt like I went to a casino and won. It was a little win. A little victory," said Velarde.

"This is the first time and I think it's awesome because you get twice as much," said Maria Lopez, an Oakland mother who is on the WIC program, "Twenty-eight dollars from the WIC and they gave me another twenty-eight dollars."

Market Match is a statewide program run by the Ecology Center in Berkeley since 2009.

"It started at maybe a dozen farmers market. Now it's at nearly 300 sites, all across California," said Carle Brinkman, The Ecology Center's Food and Farming Program Director.

Brinkman says 100 Bay Area farmers' markets participate. She says during the pandemic they've seen a 40% increase in people on food stamps taking part in the program.

Continued funding for the program, however, is uncertain. Brinkman says they are asking the state to include $20 million in the next budget to support the program.

"There's about 250 million on a national level for programs like this all across the country. They require a match, either from state or local or private," said Brinkman.

She says the dollars are worth it to help people and the farmers.

Richard Carrillo of Watsonville works at the C & N Farms booth which brings produce from Salinas. He says they get a lot of business from people using the food stamp vouchers.

"Tomatoes, zucchinis, cauliflower, potatoes," said Carrillo, "You can mix and match all day, three for five so you get cabbage, beets and carrots, it's five dollars."

"We always think organic is going to be more expensive, not worth it, but the older I've gotten I've noticed that food makes a huge difference in health, and with all of this so fresh, it makes a difference, " said Velarde.

Right now, Bay Area Assemblyman Phil Ting is leading efforts to keep state funding for the food stamp program.

Market Match organizers say the money would help them reach their goal to expand, so eventually all 650 farmers' markets in California can accept food stamps.