When you pay $4.33 for a pound of bacon, the farmer who raised it sees only 59 cents, according to the US Department of Agriculture. And less than one third of the retail price for lettuce trickles back to the farm. A box of cereal? On average, of the $4.69 spent at the grocery store, only a nickel ever finds its way into the farmer’s pocket, while most of it goes to those who distribute, sell and market the final product.

In the past decade, however, a nationwide explosion of farmers markets—where those who grow the produce also sell it—has allowed local, small-scale farmers to bypass middlemen and keep a fairer share of the profits.

Yet until recently, one pool of consumer dollars has evaded these otherwise burgeoning markets: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps, worth $75 billion annually. These public funds provide food-purchasing assistance for Americans facing financial hardship. While an invaluable safety net for struggling families, elders and young people alike, the vast majority of those dollars end up getting spent at large grocery stores where, as we learned above, farmers see only a fraction of the proceeds.

But now there’s a way to keep those food dollars local while also getting more fresh fruits and vegetables on to the plates of those most in need.

The CalFresh Market Match program, initiated by the Berkeley-based non-profit organization Ecology Center and administered locally by Petaluma Bounty, combines USDA funds with local donations to provide financial matches of SNAP dollars that are spent exclusively at farmers markets. Each week, SNAP users might receive an extra $10, sometimes $20, to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables—a boon for those in need as well as for the local food economy.

“With the matching program,” says Ian Healy of Handlebar Farm in Sebastopol, “produce at the farmers market can often be much cheaper than at grocery stores.” Besides making his produce more accessible, another unique benefit of this program, says Healy, is that these funds can also go toward vegetable starts for home or community gardens. “The small amount of money that people spend on transplants at the start of the season can save them a huge amount in food costs later in the year.”

In 2015 alone, nearly $5,000 in Market Match funds came through the Sebastopol Farmers Market. Former market manager and current administrator Paula Downing says they’re planning to apply for $12,000 for the 2016-2017 year, more than double last year. “There’s certainly some paperwork involved, but it’s totally worth it when you see folks who might not otherwise show up here say, ‘hey, I can shop here too!’”

To Downing, it’s about social justice when “you can get good food to people who ordinarily don’t have that opportunity. You can get 40 extra dollars a month to spend on food and vegetables—that’s a nice chunk of change to spend on really good food and you can feel good about supporting local farmers.”
Program Director of Petaluma Bounty Suzi Grady, while hopeful, emphasizes that there’s still work to be done to fully address healthy food access for all. “We’ve got to dismantle the barriers that keep people from attending,” she says. “We need more bilingual market managers, culturally appropriate produce, better outreach to diverse neighborhoods. And we need to listen closely and learn how we can make the market more inviting.”

Grady points to the distinguished foodie culture of Sonoma County as both a tool to promote a growing awareness around local food and healthy eating, but also as an obstacle. Because of a perception that farmers markets belong to an elitist movement of high-end restaurants and well-heeled epicureans, the people who would most benefit from this program don’t always show up to the market. But as the program and its outreach efforts grow and evolve, says Grady, she expects the clientele will diversify. “The healthy choice,” she says, “must become the easy choice.”

Nine other markets throughout Sonoma County currently participate in the program, including those in Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Petaluma. For more information on the Market Match program, visit farmersmarketlife.org.

Applications are taken at the West County Community Health Centers: Sebastopol, 824-9999 or 823-3166; Occidental, 874-2444; Russian River, 869-2849; Forestville, 887-0290. In Healdsburg and Windsor, contact the Alliance Medical Center, 433-5494. SD