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Shopping at the farmers’ market on food stamps: ‘Not just for white foodies’

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San Francisco farmers’ markets are overflowing with summer’s plentiful bounty, but many lower-income residents will never get a taste.

The Bay Area has a plethora of not-for-profit programs dedicated to healthy eating but it can’t seem to figure out how to get the food grown here on to the plates of some of the residents who need it most.

Across the region, farmers’ markets have seen a dramatic decline in shoppers paying with food stamps.

“Farmers’ markets were meant to be community spaces for everyone – they weren’t designed to just cater to white, educated foodies with disposable incomes and day tourists,” said Julia Van Soelen Kim, a social scientist at the University of California Cooperative. This summer, Van Soelen Kim launched a research project examining why Marin and Sonoma counties’ farmers markets struggle to draw a racially and economically diverse crowd of shoppers.

“If we don’t make them more accessible for everyone then we’re not creating a successful space for farmers or for the community.”

The Alemany Farmers’ Market in the city’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, California’s oldest, for example, recently reported a decrease, from $50,000 of food stamp purchases in 2016 to about $44,000 in 2018. So far this year, the market has seen an even more drastic reduction with monthly EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) sales nearly half of what was made in 2016.

The sharp decline took place despite a push to get recipients of CalFresh or Snap (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to use the markets through programs such as dollar-matching incentives. Kaiser Permanente, the largest not-for-profit private healthcare system in the country, has joined the push, offering access to farmers’ markets at the same locations where patients pick up their prescriptions.

The dip in low-income shoppers at the farmers’ market couldn’t come at a worse time. Food insecurity in San Francisco is on the rise, with one in four residents at risk of hunger, according to a 2018 report released by the city’s Food Security Task Force. The most recent report, for years 2015 and 2016, found that 50% of low-income residents said they struggled to get enough food to eat – up from 44% in 2013-2014.

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