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Food Stamps Users Go Green At Farmers Markets

A shopper gets her produce at the City Heights Farmers' Market on an overcast Saturday morning.
Ruxandra Guidi
A shopper gets her produce at the City Heights Farmers' Market on an overcast Saturday morning.
Farmers Market
Farmers Market

Lillian Tunda came from the Congo as a refugee in 2000, with her husband and four kids. As part of their resettlement process, they were given food stamps, and placed in a low-income apartment complex in the City Heights neighborhood.

Then, in 2008, the City Heights Farmers’ Market opened its stalls. Tunda and her family no longer live in the neighborhood - they're now in a planned development for low-income families located 20 miles away. But she still finds the time every Saturday to drive to the farmers market to get her fruits and vegetables.

“Where I live right now, I drive once a week and I drive to San Diego because of this program I call ‘double money,’" said Tunda, laughing about the moniker she just coined. "I can pay $20 in EBT and the market will give me $40 in produce. So you see, I have more power to buy.”

EBT, or Electronic Benefit Transfer, is another name for food stamps.

What Tunda calls “double money” is what makes this market stand out: EBT value is doubled and capped at $40 a month, thanks to a federal subsidy. This is the first market in San Diego to accept EBT and to double its value.

Nationwide, about a third of EBT permits are currently held by convenience stores. By contrast, less than 10 percent of farmers markets can accept EBT dollars right now.

Another benefit from the local market accepting EBT is that Tunda typically gets produce she would find back home in the Congo: bananas, collard greens, cassava leaves. And they aren’t necessarily organic.

“Because we are low-income, we eat just what we have, you know?" Tunda said. A handful of bananas she bought at the farmers market were on her kitchen table.

"We don’t go beyond our food stamps' worth, and we cannot have everything when we want,” she said.

Like all farmers markets, the one in City Heights sells what is in season and grown locally. It is now one of only four local markets accepting EBT payments.

The median household income in the surrounding neighborhood is $19,000 dollars a year. The median household income for San Diego is about $60,000, according to the census.

Almost half of the residents are Latino. There are also many refugee and immigrant families. There are more than 25,000 eligible EBT users here - and almost 75 percent of all payments at this market come as EBT dollars.

Bilali Muya - a self-described "farm boy" - is a farm educator and a refugee from Somalia who now works for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee settlement group in San Diego. He and other local farmers from Somalia, Burma, and Nigeria typically sell out of their green produce at the market in just a couple of hours.

“With most of this food over here, we are feeding the neighborhood, we are feeding the families," said Muya, pointing to what's left of their most recent harvest. "So it goes back to the communities.”

Farmers market advocates and food policy experts say the City Heights market is a good example that really undermines some stigmas or myths that are associated with the term "food stamps."

"One of those myths, is that people who are low-income buy 'Doritos' with their food stamp dollars," said John Criswell, director of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, a local nonprofit. "And really, what we see here is the opposite.”

Viviana Marroquin occasionally sells at the farmers market. But on a recent weekday afternoon, she could be found at the New Roots farm. It is an IRC project, also located in City Heights, where Marroquin grows vegetables from her native Guatemala. Her 4-year-old boy played with some sticks beside her as she spoke.

“Kids are kids, so our son is always craving junk food," said Marroquin, pointing to her boy. "But as soon as we started farming here and shopping at the farmers market, he has developed a taste for things like carrots and cabbage.”

California is making it easier for those on food stamps to get more greens in their diet.

Starting next year, farmers markets in California will be required to become food-stamp friendly. For farmers and consumers like Marroquin, it will mean more opportunities to do business, and to serve their families leafy greens.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.