Despite the fact that many low-income consumers aren’t aware they can use CalFresh to shop at farmers’ markets in California, there has been over 50 percent of its usage.

According to Wikipedia, “CalFresh is the California implementation of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, which provides financial assistance for purchasing food to low-income California residents”,.

Meanwhile, farmers’ markets in Marin and Sonoma counties have seen an increase in the number of shoppers using CalFresh (known nationally as SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Market Match over the past year.

A recent study conducted by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) revealed that CalFresh benefits distributed in Sonoma County in 2020 increased by 64% and dollar-for-dollar Market Match incentives distributed increased by 52% from the prior year. These promising trends are holding steady for 2021, year-to-date.

Despite these encouraging stats, there are many barriers for CalFresh users face while shopping at farmers’ markets. This is why UC ANR researchers, with the help of community partners at Petaluma Bounty and the Center for Wellbeing, have been studying how to make farmers’ markets more welcoming and accessible for low-income shoppers and people of colour. This is mainly aimed at creating equitable access to healthy food and support local farms.

“The goal is to better understand the factors that are barriers and facilitators for low-income CalFresh users to attend farmers markets, support innovations that make farmers markets more welcoming and inclusive spaces for all shoppers, and increase income for regional farms,” said Julia Van Soelen Kim, the project leader, and UC Cooperative Extension North Bay food systems advisor.

To encourage low-income consumers to shop for fresh produce at farmers’ markets, market managers need to be able to process CalFresh benefits cards. The researchers are studying these shopping habits to create a more positive community experience for low-income consumers and people of colour at farmers’ markets.

This, they aim to achieve by working with community partners to identify and reduce many of the barriers that CalFresh shoppers may face.

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t go – an important one is that many people do not know when and where farmers markets are located or when they are open. And even though money is a universal language, signage in languages other than English is another factor in helping shoppers feel included,” said Feenstra.

California has over 700 certified farmers’ markets. However many farmers market managers are still unable to process CalFresh, which can create difficulties for Calfresh shoppers to have financial access to purchasing local food.

In a bid to find a lasting solution to the challenge, UC ANR researchers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara have been conducting focus group studies with Spanish-speaking CalFresh users. This is being done to have a better understanding of the difficulties they may face when attempting to use CalFresh benefits at farmers’ markets.

“Many of our respondents were unaware that they could use their CalFresh EBT card at the farmers market, and they were certainly unaware that they could get extra money to spend there through Market Match,” said Shannon Klisch, academic coordinator II for community health education at UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo County.

Klisch added that many of these programs are detailed and complicated to the extent that some of the participants talked about the difficulty they faced just signing up for CalFresh and staying on it. This has become one huge administrative hurdle that needs to be overcome.

Some of the ideas introduced for improvement include promoting accurate information about CalFresh benefits through one-on-one appointments, clearly displaying prices on signs in both English and Spanish, creating sales promotions, having a CalFresh representative present to answer benefit questions, and making sure all farmers market managers have the ability to process SNAP benefit cards.

Meanwhile, more research is still being conducted to understand all diverse perspectives and any unforeseen obstacles that might impact the implementation of these new ideas.

As the research continues, other ways will be analyzed on how to overcome any unforeseen obstacles that farmers, vendors, managers, and shoppers may face when attempting to integrate these suggestions into farmers markets throughout the state.

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