How Farmers Markets Can Help Fight Hunger

In an echo of their antihunger roots, all markets in Los Angeles will soon accept food stamps.

A woman holds SNAP tokens while buying eggs at the Portland Farmers Market on April 23. (Photo: Gregory Rec/‘Portland Press Herald’ via Getty Images)

May 18, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Although today’s farmers markets seem more concerned with the authenticity of the heirloom pedigrees of their produce than with feeding the hungry, it wasn’t always that way. The public markets that date back to the early days of the colonies were important both for trade and keeping people fed. More recently, in the birth of the modern farmers market movement more than 40 years ago, antihunger groups played a key role. In the early 1970s, the direct retail sale of fruits and vegetables by farmers was illegal in California, and the first modern farmers markets in the state opened in 1979, after the then-and-again governor, Jerry Brown, signed the Direct Marketing Act, allowing growers to sell directly to consumers. The first market in Southern California opened in the parking lot of a church in Gardena, a diverse city in the South Bay of Los Angeles County. The market was sponsored by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, part of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, and was intended to bring the blue-collar city fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. The coalition expanded into four other communities the following year.

Spreading widely and wildly throughout California and across the country over the succeeding decades, farmers markets have drifted somewhat from their antihunger roots. As humorist Clare Doody wrote for The Washington Post last year, everyone who shops at the farmers market has “already done yoga that morning. Yet somehow they didn’t sweat; their topknot still looks good and they’ve got on a great scarf. And don’t get me started on the women.” Every paragraph of her piece begins “I don’t like farmers markets because...” It’s satire, sure, but it hits close to the experience of shopping the Wednesday-morning market in downtown Santa Monica—where no one appears to have a day job, everyone is an actor/model/DJ, and, yes, they just came from yoga.

Last week, however, the Los Angeles City Council passed a measure that will reconnect the city’s 57 markets with their antihunger roots—and further advance a national movement to leverage farmers markets to help increase food access for poor Americans. The measure, which received unanimous support, will require that every farmers market in the city accept Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, which are used to redeem food stamp benefits. Last summer, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which lobbied for the measure, found that half the city’s markets either didn’t accept EBT or couldn’t be confirmed as accepting it.

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Vance Corum, who helped open that first market in Gardena, said, “The decision by the council to require all markets to accept EBT is the most positive thing the city can do” to provide equal access to farmers markets.

“We lost a lot of poor people who were coming to farmers markets,” continued Corum, who runs the Washington state–based nonprofit Farmers’ Markets America. “Now we’ve built them back to some extent, and we’ll continue to see some bright light at the end of the tunnel, where people of all ethnicities, all income levels, will have some form of access.”

The largely white and middle-class local food movement, which spurred the popularity of farmers markets, is not to blame for that loss. Rather, changes to how federal benefits were distributed cut Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients off from the resource. Between 1994 and 2013, the number of farmers markets nationwide has increased from fewer than 2,000 to 8,144, “thereby potentially increasing access to farm products for nutrition assistance program participants,” according to a USDA report. In 1994, just over a quarter of markets accepted food stamps, which were then redeemed with paper vouchers. As the nutrition assistance program switched over to EBT cards in the early 2000s, the ability for cash-based farmers markets to accept food stamps declined sharply, hitting just 8 percent of all markets in 2004. But managers of farmers markets and their vendors have been catching up. As of 2011, more than a third of markets accepted benefits, and the share has continued to increase.

The Los Angeles ordinance will further increase that figure. To prevent vendors from spending so they can accept plastic, managers at each market will be required to have an EBT point-of-sale machine (provided for free by the state) that will allow SNAP recipients to debit their cards and receive scrips or tokens representing the equivalent amount of cash. Customers can then spend the scrips with vendors, who can redeem them for cash or another form of payment from the market operators at the end of the day.

The scrip can go a lot further at the farmers market than you might imagine. A number of regional price-comparison studies of farmers markets and grocery stores have found that buying direct costs roughly the same, and sometimes even less, than shopping at a supermarket. One study conducted in Vermont found that buying organic items from the farmers market was less expensive in every instance than buying from the store. That’s not to say that some farmers market items aren’t exorbitantly expensive. As Michel Nischan of Wholesome Wave said, “People will fixate on the $5-a-pound heirloom tomato, but they will not fixate on the 80-cents-a-pound kohlrabi.” That same tomato might cost a dollar or two a pound when it’s a little past its prime and perfect for making sauce.

Nischan’s work at Wholesome Wave is dedicated to making SNAP scrips go twice as far by expanding market-match programs, which incentivize food stamp recipients to shop at farmers markets by matching the amount they spend with an EBT card. Local programs around the country provide such matching funds, and Nischan’s organization was able to get federal funds supporting market-match programs included in the 2014 farm bill. Last year, California received a $3.7 million grant to expand market match in the state. While having an EBT machine at a farmers market can help bring in new customers, those with market-match programs see even larger increases in business. According to Nischan, markets that add a doubling program can see a 38 percent jump in overall sales compared with when they accepted EBT.

“What we’ve seen is that little bit of incentive—it can just be a $5 doubling or a $10 doubling—it changes the way these SNAP consumers spend the rest of their SNAP dollars,” Nischan said. “You give these families an extra $10 a week, and they move mountains with it.”

Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell mentioned the possibility of expanding market-match programs in Los Angeles as a potential step beyond the EBT ordinance. But according to a study released Tuesday on farmers markets in South Los Angeles, the market-match programs available aren’t connecting with residents in parts of the city where food access is the poorest and rates of diet-related disease are the highest. According to a Community Health Councils report, more than 80 percent of nearly 500 consumers surveyed were not aware of market match. Furthermore, there simply are not enough markets serving communities in South Los Angeles, according to Gwendolyn Flynn, CHC’s policy director of nutrition resources development—and the perception remains that not all residents are welcome at those markets that do exist in poor, diverse communities.

“The support of the city council, with their vote, was tremendous in helping to dispel this notion that this was for a few people—no, it’s for everybody,” she said. Low-income shoppers have felt that “farmers markets were kind of elitist—and that’s not the case.”

Some organizers see farmers markets as an alternative to the long-flagging efforts to bring grocery stores and other food retailers into neighborhoods that have historically lacked access. But Flynn is hoping for more dynamic, more diverse solutions—not only to the diet-related problems that neighborhoods are facing but to the lack of jobs and economic opportunity as well.

“Having farmers markets shouldn’t preclude us from having supermarkets and grocery stores and community gardens and other forms of urban agriculture,” she said.

But, as Nischan said, “frankly, from an economic perspective, when you talk about making food access a quick reality, it’s a lot cheaper to open a four-, five-, or six-vendor market” than to open a grocery store. “If I were a grocery store owner, I wouldn’t do it either,” he said, referring to opening a location in a low-income neighborhood.

Flynn contends that bringing more food access across the board, from grocery stores that hire hundreds of workers to community gardens that reduce blight and provide opportunities for civic engagement, “would help to reinvigorate and stimulate these local economies and in the long run would contribute to the health outcomes in communities like South Los Angeles.”

That kind of broad-based neighborhood change, in part driven by farmers markets, has happened before—to a degree. For example, in the early days of the Hollywood Farmers Market, “Hollywood was a little bit of a rough neighborhood, so we were looking for a social impact related to many things,” said James Haydu, the executive director of SEE-LA, which operates markets across Los Angeles. Not only did the market sell food to residents and area restaurants, but it used public space, got people out into the street interacting with one another, and helped to support California farmers.

Santa Monica was also a far different place in the early 1980s, when its famed downtown market made its debut, from what it is today, with its many post-yoga-class actors.