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Border & Immigration

San Diego Farmers' Market Tops Food Stamp Collection Rate

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.
San Diego Farmers' Market Tops Food Stamp Collection Rate
Public health officials say fresh food availability will be key in reversing rising obesity and diabetes rates in the Southwest. In San Diego, one market is already showing the way.

Lillian Tunda came from the Congo in 2000 as a refugee 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 of San Diego.  

Then, in 2008, the City Heights Farmers’ Market opened. 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'd 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 here, capped at $40 a month, thanks to a federal subsidy. This is the first market in San Diego to accept EBT and to double their value. 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?" said Tunda. A handful of bananas bought at the farmers' market still sat on her kitchen table. "We don’t go beyond our food stamps' worth, and we cannot have everything when we want.”

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

The median household income around here is $19,000 a year. 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 is a self-described "farm boy" - a farm educator and refugee from Somalia, who now works for a refugee settlement group in San Diego, the International Rescue Committee (IRC). He and other local farmers from Somalia, Burma, and Nigeria typically sell out of their greens on market day 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' markets advocates and food policy experts say this farmers’ market is a good way to break 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, an IRC project also located in City Heights, where Marroquin grows vegetables from her native Guatemala. Her four-year-old son 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.”

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. In California, that’s about to change.

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