In a city of over four million residents, Los Angeles has extreme income disparities. In some pockets of town it may be easier for you to find a French fry than an apple, but in other pockets you might find a dozen apple choices—local, organic, heirloom, and conventionally grown varieties. A solution that might address access barriers to healthy foods is to increase consumer purchase power at farmers markets. Currently, the city of Los Angeles has 57 farmers markets in operation.
Just a few weeks ago, on May 13th, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted (13-0) for an ordinance requiring all farmers markets to accept CalFresh Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Councilman José Huizar introduced this measure, in partnership with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, Hunger Action LA, and the Los Angeles Community Action Network. Prior to this measure, less than half of the city’s farmers markets accepted CalFresh EBT. Now that the ordinance is passed, what next?
Authorizing and Equipping Farmers Markets to Accept EBT
The CalFresh Program is federally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formally referred to as food stamps. CalFresh provides food support to low-income individuals and families. In order for farmers markets to gain authorization to accept EBT, operators must apply with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA-FNS). On May 17th, just a few days after the measure passed, a sign-up event was hosted at City Hall to encourage farmers market operators to sign up for CalFresh. The event enrolled 26 farmers market operators and the USDA-FNS processed all applications in about two hours, expediting an enrollment process that usually takes 30 to 45 days. Today, almost 100 percent of the city of Los Angeles’ farmers markets are enrolled to accept EBT.
Once farmers markets are authorized to accept EBT, they need the machines to process transactions. CalFresh recipients access their benefits through EBT cards, which functions like a debit card. In grocery stores, merchants will typically swipe the card through their normal credit/debit card terminal, and the consumer will enter their Personal Identification Numbers (PIN). Unlike some card machines and phone apps, EBT and debit transactions require consumers to enter their PIN. Many of these devices and apps are not designed to accept PINs as part of a transaction process. Luckily, through the application process, farmers market operators receive free EBT machines.
Establishing a Scrip System
Even after applying and receiving EBT devices, farmers market operators need to develop other logistics. For instance, in such an open market with many vendors, how do CalFresh recipients use their benefits? A coordinated “scrip system,” or payment process, between market operators, farmers, and customers must be established. For instance, operators typically establish a central Point of Sale station with an EBT machine at an information booth or station. Here, customers will swipe their EBT cards to obtain scrip (paper vouchers or wooden tokens) used to “buy” eligible food items from market farmers. Some eligible items for purchase include fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, and breads. At the end of the market day, farmers turn in vouchers and tokens to managers at the market for payment.
Debunking Myths and Consumer Education
Building it doesn’t always mean people will come. The passage of the ordinance may have facilitated policy changes, but what about implementation practices? Another aspect to this is consumer education on many levels. Farmers markets are notorious for being thought of as more expensive than grocery stores. That’s not always the case. Unless your shopping list only has artisan goods, then yes, the farmers market can get pricey. However, you can buy healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables at a fraction of the megastore cost by purchasing directly from farmers. In fact, that’s why farmers markets exist in the first place. The goal was, and still is today, to cut out the middle process of food distribution and connect consumers directly with farmers. To break down these notions as well as to introduce Angelenos who have never been to a farmers market, there needs to be more consumer education through community engagement. The following are some ways to help create accessible and welcoming environments for all consumers.
- Introducing the Farmers Market. Like any new environment, there are things you need to learn as you enter that space. Farmers markets vary because of how they operate and the farmers that set up shop. Anything from word of mouth to holding community events at a local farmers market can attract more visitors. Some farmers may have food that consumers may not be familiar with. Encouraging sample stations and facilitating cooking demonstrations may introduce consumers to new healthy food items.
- Maximizing Dollars. In addition to CalFresh, many famers markets also participate in other governmental programs that may further support CalFresh recipients. There are many farmers market vendors that accept WIC (Women, Infants & Children) checks. Through a healthy food inventive program called Market Match, CalFresh and WIC recipients can receive additional dollars for farmers market purchases. Another way to save money at the farmers market is to ask vendors about their “seconds.” Often farmers may have fruit that are slightly bruised or imperfect in some small way that they will sell for a discounted cost. They may look slightly imperfect, but they’ll taste perfectly good for a fraction of the price.
- Finding Cultural Connections. Nopales? No problem! The beauty of farmers markets in the city of Los Angeles is the cultural diversity and amazing growing seasons in the state of California. There are many diverse farmers that sell diverse food items like nopales (cactus), persimmons, lemon grass, garlic chives, guava, kai lan (Chinese broccoli), zucchini flowers, and so many others.
- Building Community. The beauty of a farmers market is that it’s a community between people who grow food and people who eat food. You would be surprised by the relationships that are built upon weekly trips to the farmers market. It’s very common for consumers to find their apple guy or kale lady that will “know what you like” or “haven’t seen you in a while.” For many neighborhoods, farmers markets can provide an opportunity to engage the community, revitalize space, and provide resources.
In this balance of local supply and local demand, there are many potential wins from the new ordinance. Consumers have a reliable source for local fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets can offer farmers a reliable market to sell to. Environmentally, there is less transport and refrigeration of food. The possibilities are endless, but there is definitely more work to be done. To start, we should all support our local farmers market. You can find your nearest market here through the Ecology Center: http://ecologycenter.org/fmfinder/.
 LA Community Action Network, Hunger Action LA, Sustainable Economic Enterprises LA, Covered CA Sugar Watch, Slow Food Los Angeles, Ecology Center, Public Health Foundation WIC Program, USDA Food and Nutrition Service, LA County Department of Social Services, CA Department of Social Services, LA County Department of Public Health, Council member José Huizar, 14th District, Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti