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More Farmers Markets To Possibly Accept Food Stamps

Brightly colored fruits and vegetables sit on display at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market.
Aaron Fulkerson
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables sit on display at the Hillcrest Farmer's Market.
More Farmers Markets To Possibly Accept Food Stamps
New legislation is being pushed that would require more farmers markets to accept food stamps.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last month, in a state-wide ranking of which counties in California were the healthiest, San Diego did better than average but was not at the top of the pack. One of the reasons for that, according to local health officials, is that people in poorer communities in San Diego don't have a lot of access to fresh produce. There’s a bill that's passed the state assembly that seeks to remedy that. The proposal would require more farmers markets around the state to accept food stamps. We'll be talking about what that change might mean for the health of low income San Diegans but first I’d like to welcome the sponsor of the bill. Assemblyman Juan Arambula is an Independent representing District 31 in Fresno and, Assemblyman Arambula, welcome to These Days.

JUAN ARAMBULA (Assemblyman, State of California): Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us about this new legislation that you sponsored. Why did you decide to write this?


ARAMBULA: Well, for a number of reasons. I was looking for a win-win situation, especially given the information that you just shared, that an awful lot of poor people don’t have access to healthy and nutritious and affordable produce, fruits and vegetables. Also, I wanted to help small farmers who grow locally and who need to have additional markets for their produce. And it seemed that one of the groups that needed the help in particular was the population that receives federally funded food stamps. Years ago, before we changed from the – what we currently use, the electronic benefit transfer cards, the debit cards…


ARAMBULA: …people used to have paper coupons that they could take to a farmer or a vendor to buy produce. But when we shifted to the debit cards, we found that many farmers markets did not have the necessary equipment to be able to use them and to help people, poor people, to be able to buy affordable produce, so what this bill does is, it says that farmers markets have a target of about a year and a half from now to set up these machines and if they’re not able to or if they choose not to do so, then a community-based organization can step in and run it for them. The state will help by providing the machine. There should be no cost to set this up. And I think what it will mean is that more people will have access to our farmers’ produce and, hopefully, we will see healthier lifestyles, less evidence – incidence of diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure or, you know, things related to poor nutrition.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of reaction have you gotten to this bill, this proposed legislation? Are there people saying this is a burden on small business?

ARAMBULA: Well, actually, no. It’s received a good response despite the column in the San Diego paper or from someone from the San Diego paper. I do think that more and more people are beginning to be concerned about the health consequences of poor eating and poor nutrition. The vote in the Assembly was 67 yes votes to 3 no votes. And the opposition that initially emerged, I believe they had some legitimate concerns, so we took our time with the bill. I introduced it actually more than a year ago, and we’ve worked out the concerns from the opposition. In fact, many groups that had initially opposed have now sent letters of support.


CAVANAUGH: We’ll be talking a little bit more about that U-T editorial later in our program. But Assemblyman Arambula, what is the next step for this bill?

ARAMBULA: The next step is to go before the First Policy Committee in the Senate and my hope is that it will pass, it will sail through the Senate and be voted off of the Senate floor and if there’s any changes that has to come for a technical concurrence back in the Assembly, but my goal is to have this bill on the governor’s desk by August of this year and that he will sign it and that this will be, then, in effect as of January first.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it.

ARAMBULA: My pleasure. Thank you very much for your interest.

CAVANAUGH: That’s been Assemblyman Juan Arambula, and he represents District 31 in Fresno. We have been talking about the new bill that he’s introduced that would require more farmers markets around the state to accept food stamps. I’d like to welcome my two new guests. Michelle Zive is Executive Director for the Network for a Healthy California, UC San Diego. Michelle, welcome.

MICHELLE ZIVE (Executive Director, Network for a Healthy California, UC San Diego): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Casey Anderson is Membership and Marketing Manager for the San Diego County Farm Bureau. Casey, welcome to These Days.

CASEY ANDERSON (Membership and Marketing Manager, San Diego County Farm Bureau): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Michelle, right now, as I said in our open, only four of about 42 of the San Diego farmers markets accept food stamps. Do you see that as a problem?

ZIVE: Oh, absolutely, yes. But let’s keep in mind that the first one established here in City Heights happened less than two years ago. So I think that it’s a step in the right direction but I would love to see all farmers markets have access for poor, you know, for poor people and to have – to accept food stamps.

CAVANAUGH: Now why, though, is that a problem? Explain to us why it’s difficult for low, if, indeed, it is, low income people to get good produce in San Diego.

ZIVE: Well, you referenced the report that came out that said we were 40 – 40th out of 56 counties in terms of our access to healthy foods. What that means is, our poorer neighborhoods do not have access to produce, they just don’t. There’s more liquor stores, there’s more fast food, and you walk around those kinds of neighborhoods and you will see that evidence. So what farmers markets do and food stamp eligible or access, they allow people to actually purchase produce and healthy food.

CAVANAUGH: And, Casey, I’m wondering, how difficult is it to introduce that food stamp – that slide card thing to farmers markets?

ANDERSON: It’s not – It’s really not very difficult. It does take time. But the system is in place for farmers markets to set it up in farmers markets currently. I mean, in San Diego, you know, we weren’t – When we first got City Heights EBT accessible, we weren’t reinventing the wheel. We – It’s the free point of sale machines, which process the EBT transactions, those are provided through the California State EBT program. We simply just needed the San Diego Farm Bureau signed up as a food and nutrition service retailer through the USDA, which is a requirement to accept food stamps. So while it did take time, it did require some paper work, it really wasn’t a very complex process.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, though, when farmers or sellers first hear about this requirement possibly coming down from the state legislature, is it – do you hear a lot of groans initially? Do sellers say, oh, no, another thing we have to do.

ANDERSON: No, especially – I mean, if you – if the market management takes the time to explain to the farmers and they can see that what’s happening is the market management is actually being proactive in, you know, in trying to increase the sale to the farmer. I mean, we receive nothing but appreciation for that. The scrip system by which food stamps participants make their purchases is very simple and it’s simply just a different form of currency that the farmers can accept. And once they recognize it and know how it works, it’s very simple.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Michelle, you’re Executive Director for the Network for a Healthy California.

ZIVE: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: And you just described a situation where in less affluent neighborhoods there aren’t an awful lot of places where you can get, you know, really great fruits and vegetables. How do we get in a situation like this?

ZIVE: Well, you know, if you think about it, I mean, it’s often the case that healthier foods are more expensive even in richer neighborhoods. So, you know, we’re sort of backwards in thinking, you know, it’s a lot cheaper to buy unhealthy food, unfortunately. And if that’s all that’s available, I mean, you know, people are – know that fruits and vegetables matter. They know that it can prevent obesity and high cholesterol and all those other diseases, right? But if you don’t have access, if it’s not affordable people cannot buy it and they cannot be healthy, okay? And then there goes the, you know, the burden on the health system and, I mean, it’s just this cyclical thing.


ZIVE: I want to say also that people are – people have supported this in City Heights. They absolutely have supported it. In about a year there was $170,000 made as a result of the farmers market. There was 38,000 people that attended that market, that’s 38,000 people that have access to fresh fruits and vegetables, locally grown. That’s awesome.

CAVANAUGH: Now is it difficult convincing someone who uses food stamps to shop at a farmers market?

ZIVE: Yeah, there’s a – there is this misnomer or – it’s a education that, indeed, produce is comparably priced to like the corner – to like corner produce markets, those kinds of things and they’re a lot cheaper than major supermarkets and they’re a lot cheaper than middle markets as well. So we need to educate the community that farmers market produce is not more expensive, indeed, it could – and in often cases, it’s cheaper.

CAVANAUGH: And, Casey, you know, we have seen a proliferation of farmers markets across San Diego County in recent years. I’m wondering, is it possible to have too many? Or are we at a saturation point?

ANDERSON: You know, that’s really simply just a matter of opinion. Obviously, you know, in everything it is possible to have too much of a good thing. But I think what you’re seeing right now is a lot of organizations recognizing the benefits of farmers markets and the benefits that a farmers market can have on a local community by making, you know, locally grown produce available to as many residents as it possibly can.

CAVANAUGH: I’m interested, you know, it’s a different experience shopping in a farmers market than it is just going to a regular grocery store. Michelle, is there – do you actually walk people through perhaps their first time to give them, you know, here’s the heads up, here’s how you do it?

ZIVE: Not so much that. I mean, you know, at the City Heights farmers market, in particular, it’s not just the produce. There’s actually health screening sometimes, they actually have groups out there doing like dancing and doing some physical activities so it’s a whole community event. I mean, the feedback that we’ve gotten from the people who shop there, it’s not just the produce although the majority of people go there to actually shop for produce but it’s a community space where people feel like they’re going to be able to get healthy food, they get health information and they learn how to grow fruits and vegetables. It’s really kind of an exciting place, so it’s not just like walking through the supermarket. And it’s, you know, people grabbing fruits and vegetables. It’s quite an experience.

CAVANAUGH: So from this City Heights experiment with accepting food stamps at that farmers market in City Heights, what feedback have you gotten? What kind of change in diets have you heard about in people who use food stamps because they now can shop at that market?

ZIVE: Absolutely. Well, you know, it’s interesting. Everyone that we’ve – we’ve done focus groups and we’ve done shopper surveys and everyone loves the market there. And, again, they shop there because of the fresh produce, and they shop there, also, you know, once they sort of know that it’s a good place to be and that they accept food stamps and that it is – you know, it can be cheaper or comparably priced to other markets, they also love the quality of it. They love the taste of it. They love the fact that this produce actually lasts longer in your refrigerator than it would otherwise. And so – And people are saying that they are, as a result of the farmers market, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I just want to remind our listeners if you, indeed, have used food stamps at a farmers market here in San Diego, give us a call, tell us how it’s changed what you buy, 1-888-895-5727, and also if you’d just like to weigh in on what you think of this idea. Again, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. Now, Michelle, and I wanted to speak to both of you, Michelle and Casey about this, about the amount of money that can be generated to the markets themselves by getting in more people, getting in more members of the community to take part. And, Michelle, you were telling me it kind of started off a little slow at City Heights.

ZIVE: Right, yeah. I mean, it – Again, it’s a education process and it’s a, oh, you know what, those farmers markets are meant for places like Hillcrest or OB or North Park. I mean, they’re not really meant for, you know, this community. And so it was a little bit of an education process for everyone, the residents, the farmers. I mean, Casey could probably speak to that. And it did take – it did take a little while and, you know, quite honestly, we – it’s been – I can’t remember, I think it was June of 2008 that it started, you know, and we’re always finding way to actually increase participation and to increase shoppers. And I was sharing with you that while the shoppers and while the residents have really supported the market, you know, we want them to put their money where their mouth is. We want them to maybe spend a couple more dollars than they normally would. We want them to come every Saturday. We want them to bring a friend. We want them to, you know – so we encourage everyone to talk about the farmers market and what it’s done for them.

CAVANAUGH: And, Casey, from the farmers, the sellers end, is it a learning experience to start accepting the food stamps and learning to deal with a bit more of a complicated transaction?

ANDERSON: Well, yeah, I guess everything’s a learning experience but the market management does everything we can to make it as simple as possible. And, really, it couldn’t be very much simpler. The way that it works is the food stamps participant comes to the point of sale machine, swipes their card, just like a debit card, and says how much money they would like to use. They’re given that amount in wooden tokens, stamped, identified to the farmers market and each one token is worth one dollar. They take that token and spend it just like, you know, just like cash at a vendor booth and then at the end of the market the vendor simply approaches the market management with their tokens and redeems them to the market management for cash in return to the farmer or in some instances they’re written a check, right. I mean…

CAVANAUGH: You’re right, it sounds pretty simple.


CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a call. Elizabeth is calling us from University Heights. Good morning, Elizabeth. Welcome to These Days.

ELIZABETH (Caller, University Heights): Good morning, Maureen. Hi. I’m a volunteer with a group called the People’s Produce Project in southeast San Diego and this weekend I attended a California Small Farm Conference that was here in San Diego. So I sat in a room with 60 market managers from all throughout California and they voiced the same concern almost over and over. What they thought was the proliferation of farmers markets in different cities. They felt there were too many. And my observation to them was, you know, you’re saying there’s too many but I seem to hear that they’re in predominantly affluent neighborhoods. We really do need to create these markets in neighborhoods that do need them, such as City Heights and southeast San Diego and support them. Those are people in those communities that want to learn more, that want that access, that need that access but there almost seems to be some hesitation or some issues with creating those in those areas. Can your speakers address that in any way?

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Elizabeth for the call. Do you think that this legislation would change that dynamic for where they are placing farmers markets, Michelle?

ZIVE: Well, I don’t know that it’ll necessarily change it. It’ll, again, will allow access, you know, people that are food stamp eligible to actually use their food stamps. I want to address the proliferation or too many farmers markets. The deal is, is that—and Casey can probably talk to this a little bit more—the reason why I’m addressing City Heights is because I actually work in City Heights. My office is actually in City Heights, and we – the network helped establish that market. But – So I can only speak to that. But that’s been very successful because of the commitment from so many partners, Price Charities, International Rescue Committee, San Diego Farm Bureau, the Network, etcetera, etcetera. And so it’s taken a lot – it’s taken a village to pretty much support that. And it’s also – once those machines are put there, we have to market it, okay? We can’t just say, okay, we’re accessible. Okay, now we’re going to, you know, we’re going to – come and get it. I also have to mention there is a Fresh Fund matching program at City Heights that’s really made this EBT accessible market successful. And that is for every five dollars that they bring in with food stamps, you’ll get up to five dollars matched, so essentially you’re getting double the amount of produce.


ZIVE: So that’s been very successful. And Casey probably can talk to the other markets that don’t have that match program and sort of how we can entice more food stamp usage in those markets.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Casey, I was wondering, do you agree with the concept that there aren’t enough farmers markets in low income neighborhoods?

ANDERSON: I would certainly agree with that, that there aren’t enough markets centered in low income neighborhoods. And I think by – with all markets beginning to accept EBT that that can certainly change. I think what’s important to realize is overall, you know, the market system will kind of dictate how many farmers markets can be in a certain area. If there are enough customers going to these markets regularly so that the markets can sustain themselves, then there isn’t a problem.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a…

ANDERSON: But, I mean…

CAVANAUGH: Yes, go ahead.

ANDERSON: …if – Markets depend on loyal customers so if you’re the type of customer that goes to the market every single week and makes it a part of their regular grocery shopping for – You see that when new markets open, there’s always an explosion of people going to this new market because it’s an event. After a couple of months, though, that market can really be struggling because the people who went to that market for the first couple weeks didn’t make it a habit to continue going to that market, to their community market and supporting it every single week.

CAVANAUGH: Support it, right, right.

ANDERSON: And that’s what it takes to keep a farmers market in a community.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Andrew is calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREW (Caller, Clairemont): Hello. How are you today?

CAVANAUGH: Just great. Thank you.

ANDREW: I’m on my way to work right now, so sorry if the quality is not as good. I just had a quick question. I don’t really understand why placing more regulations on businesses to require like, you know, for instance, farmers at farmers markets to require taking food stamps. I don’t get the logic behind that. I mean…

CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, thank you. And can – Michelle, perhaps can you address Andrew’s question?

ZIVE: Yeah, I think what he’s talking about is – what he said was regulation and insisting or enforcing that EBT be accepted at these markets. Let me tell you that for every five dollars spent through food stamps, there’s another nine dollars and twenty cents generated in the rest of the economy so that frees up money for people to buy other things that they need that may not be – that they may not be able to use their food stamps. It’s just another – Like Casey said, it’s just another way to generate more income for the farmers so it actually benefits the farmers, it actually benefits the local economy and I have to say that 50% of the $170,000—if I hadn’t mentioned this before—was cash at City Heights. So it wasn’t just EBT, it wasn’t just WIC, it wasn’t SSI, it was cash. So I can’t understand why it wouldn’t be a win-win to generate more money into the economy. I don’t understand that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me also reference – because our Assemblyman talked about an editorial in the Union-Tribune and he was talking about the editorial by Ruben Navarrette who wrote a column that sort of criticized this legislation coming down the pike allowing food stamps to be used at farmers markets and one of his challenges to that was that he says that produce is available in supermarkets. Why can’t people using food stamps just simply go into a supermarket and buy some produce, why do we have to put another requirement on a small business owner? Would you like to address that, Michelle?

ZIVE: Absolutely. The thing is, is again, if you look at the report, we’re 40th out of 56 counties in terms of access to healthy food for lower income neighborhoods. I’m not saying higher income neighborhoods. But if you walk around a lower income neighborhood, you’re going to see more liquor stores than you will perhaps grocery stores. And in that case, even if the liquor store does offer produce, it’s going to be a lot more expensive. So having food stamps, you know, food stamp accessible markets actually allows people to buy fresh produce. And let’s keep in mind this is local produce. These are local farmers that, again, Casey, when Casey was talking, these – they want more avenues to actually put out their produce, you know. It’s a complete win-win situation.

CAVANAUGH: And, Casey, just once again from what you’ve been hearing, this is not a real problem for the farmers markets and sellers?

ANDERSON: It’s not a problem for the vendors to learn how to, you know, accept the – to work with the scrip system. I do want to mention that – I mean, there definitely is some markets have concerns and I’m talking more towards market management now…


ANDERSON: …because there are small markets that are managed by a single individual…


ANDERSON: …who, you can understand, you know, they’re very busy managing the market as it is. Now, I mean, there obviously has to be somebody manning that point of sale machine, processing each and every transaction with the EBT participants that come to the market. So that’s where one of the largest concerns that small farmers markets would have, that it will require additional staff, additional help to run, you know, the EBT system within the market. And I think that’s a legitimate concern. In my personal experience working for the San Diego Farm Bureau, we do sponsor four farmers markets, the only farmers markets in the – in San Diego County that currently accept EBT. All of our markets are managed by a single individual except for City Heights, City Heights being unique in that we process so many EBT transactions there per week that there are very willing volunteers and community organizations with individuals who we’ve trained to work on the machines, so the machines – I mean, if you’re really – if the market is – really wanted to be a part of the community, I’d say it is certainly possible to outreach to local residents or local organizations and find volunteers who would be willing to get this – to, you know, to staff the…


ANDERSON: …the point of sale machines…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. We really – we’re just out of time. Thank you so much. As this bill works its way through Sacramento, I’m sure that we’ll be revisiting this but I want to thank you both. Casey Anderson, Membership and Marketing Manager for San Diego County Farm Bureau. Michelle Zive is Executive Director for the Network for a Healthy California, UC San Diego. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ZIVE: You’re welcome.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And earlier I spoke with Assemblyman Juan Arambula of Fresno. And if you’d like to post a comment, Coming up, giving a helping hand to women. We’ll hear about San Diego’s Women Resource Fair as These Days continues here on KPBS.