Berkeley Ecology Center’s Big Win

Photo courtesy of the Ecology Center

Photo courtesy of the Ecology Center

$3.7 million USDA grant expands Market Match to the benefit of farmers and low-income shoppers

By Rachel Trachten

California farmers’ markets just got more affordable for people on public benefits. In a stunning example of public policy done well, the USDA awarded $3.7 million to Berkeley’s Ecology Center for its Market Match program. Through Market Match, shoppers eligible for CalFresh food benefits (formerly called food stamps) get a dollar-for-dollar match; money spent through CalFresh is matched with farmers’ market tokens of equal value, so shoppers double their purchasing power. The maximum per-market match for each customer varies throughout the state from $5 to $15.

Until now, Market Match has been an on-again, off-again program, depending on available funding. With the two-year USDA grant, Market Match will restart statewide in May 2015, offering matching funds for the purchase of fruits and vegetables.

“It was glorious to go and get an extra $10 for your $10,” says Berkeley resident Ajua, a regular market shopper who has used Market Match. “It’s really helpful to have access to that food and to have the benefit of the match.”

The grant to the Ecology Center represents an impressive 10% of the funds awarded nationwide through the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI), which was authorized and funded by the 2014 Farm Bill. Mandela MarketPlace, another local FINI recipient, was awarded $422,500 for an innovative partnership with Highland Hospital and to make healthy foods available to hospital patients who live in food desert neighborhoods.

According to Martin Bourque, the Ecology Center’s executive director, when food stamps became electronic in 2003, farmers’ markets were left out because they didn’t have the phone lines and power needed to swipe a benefits card. Ecology Center staff helped to create a mobile swipe card device and assisted 300 markets statewide to implement the system in order to make the benefits available to people on public assistance. Market Match was developed by the nonprofit Roots Of Change in 2009; the Ecology Center, which runs the Berkeley markets, took the reins in 2013.

The $3.7 million statewide grant will help Bay Area shoppers with $845,000 in Market Match incentives over the next two years. The Ecology Center estimates that the incentives will in turn generate an additional 2.6 million CalFresh dollars spent in Bay Area markets, farm stands, CSAs, and mobile market stops. Market Match served 7,500 people in the Bay Area in 2014; it will serve approximately 76,000 Bay Area residents over the next two years.

Ripple Effects

Farmer Tim Mueller of Riverdog Farm notes that Market Match dollars not only feed people, but also flow back to farmers and rural communities. Mueller has 60 year-round employees on his farm and says that programs like this help him stay in business. Bourque adds, “Market farmers are pioneers doing amazing things in terms of water conservation, climate mitigation, reducing pesticides, and fair labor practices, and they need support.”

Bourque expects an enthusiastic response from benefit recipients as well. “When you provide an incentive and help overcome cost barriers, there is tremendous demand,” he says. “This flies in the face of common assumptions and prejudices that people on federal benefits eat poorly because they don’t know better or don’t care; most recipients are working moms, seniors, children, or people with disabilities, doing the best they can.” Bourque adds that people often speak in punitive ways about preventing people on public benefits from buying soda or cake. In contrast, he says, this incentive approach empowers people.

Access to fresh produce also plays a powerful role in improved health, with well-established links connecting poor nutrition, low income, and chronic illness such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. The state’s Health in All Policies (HiAP) Task Force states that “chronic disease, which is often diet-related, now accounts for over 75% of all deaths in California.” People making less than a living wage are disproportionately affected.

And even though it’s harder to measure, markets also foster rewards like friendship and community. Ajua recalls Mr. Davis, an egg and pecan farmer who supplied her with eggs “for the baby” when she was pregnant. She adds that people watched her son grow up at the Berkeley markets, “a village where we can sit and talk and eat and network and have the food medicine.” Ajua recently joined the market’s advisory board.

Looking ahead, Bourque is already working to secure matching funds from the state when the next round of grants is given. “The FINI grant is the single largest effort I know of to address consumer inequities in the alternative food system,” he says. “There’s a valuable lesson here for how a small idea that actually works can become a more institutionalized program when there’s real government support for people eating healthy food.”