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New program helps low-income families buy fresh from Eastside Farmers Market

Jesse Pizzitola of Firstlight Farm in Petaluma sells produce at the Petaluma Eastside Farmers Market. Pizzitola said that a new incentive program to encourage low-income families to shop at the market will "help us further our work of getting good food to low-income people."

Matt Brown / For the Argus-Courier
Published: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 at 10:49 a.m.

On a drizzly Tuesday morning, a Petaluma woman was buying juicy grapes for her two-year-old at the Eastside farmer's market. Instead of using cash, she paid for the fresh produce with wooden tokens, the standard tender for recipients of CalFresh food benefits.


Petaluma's first year-round market

Agricultural Community Events started the Eastside farmers market on Sept. 4. It is the first year-round market in Petaluma, according to Kelly Smith, executive director of Agricultural Community Events, which also runs markets in Glen Ellen and San Rafael.
“Every week we see new faces,” Smith said. “I see a lot of excitement from both the vendor and customer side. We are constantly getting inquiries from potential vendors. We'll see how winter treats us, particularly if we have some rainy Tuesdays. But I think we'll be just fine. We're in it for the long term. The community supports it. I can only see it growing and becoming more successful.”
The market has space for 50 vendors. Besides fresh local fruits, vegetables and nuts, other vendors sell crafts, jewelry, soup, sandwiches, bread, coffee, olive oil, cupcakes, honey, cheese, hummus, eggs, tamales, and strudel.
The market is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the parking lot of the Petaluma Community Center, 320 N. McDowell Blvd. For more information visit CommunityFarmersMarkets.com.

As a CalFresh recipient, she received an extra $10 to spend on locally grown produce at the market, part of a new incentive program to encourage healthy eating in low-income families.

“I think it's pretty amazing,” said the woman, who did not wish to be named. “I had seen (the incentive advertised) on Facebook. Every 10 bucks helps. It made it really nice. Sometimes it can get tough at the end of the month.”

On Nov. 20, the Petaluma Eastside farmer's market began giving low-income families on CalFresh benefits an extra $10 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The incentive program is a way to encourage people to purchase healthy food, said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which co-sponsors the incentive.

“The CalFresh benefit is not a lot of money, so people tend to go where you can get more bang for your buck,” Hempel said. “A lot of times that is not the most healthy option. Giving the incentive encourages people to buy healthy food.”

The average CalFresh benefit, formerly known as foodstamps, is $200 per family per month, according to Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, which administers the federal program. Through October, recipients spent $4.7 million in benefits at the state's 291 participating farmer's markets.

“Everyone benefits,” Ramirez said. “It allows people who get benefits to get a better diet, and it opens up merchants to new customers.”

Farmer's markets in Sonoma County have been accepting CalFresh EBT cards for two years. The Tuesday Eastside farmer's market has been accepting the benefits since it launched in September as Petaluma's first year-round market. Merchants think the additional incentive will help attract new customers.

“Everyone has to eat well,” said Rick Krout, who sells winter squash, chard, kale and garlic at the market. “This should stimulate some business. It sounds like a great strategy on the part of the community.”

The $10 incentive program was funded by a $5,400 donation pooled from a number of local organizations, most of which provide health care. Petaluma Health Care District, St. Joseph Health and Petaluma Health Center together contributed $4,000 and Kaiser contributed $1,000. Ladybug Connections added $400, according to Kelly Smith, executive director of Agricultural Community Events.

“Everyone is working together,” Smith said. “It's really cool to see all these organizations coming together to eliminate hunger and need in Petaluma.”

Petaluma non-profits have been looking for ways to connect low-income residents with healthy, local food, and the incentive program is part of that trend. The Petaluma Food Pantry distributes packaged food to needy families at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at the Petaluma Community Center, the site of the Eastside farmer's market.

Ladybug Connections provides fresh eggs and meat to the food pantry bags, and the group donated turkeys and hams to families for Thanksgiving. Eastside farmer's market vendors provide excess fruits and vegetables to the food pantry.

Farmer's market customers only need to present their CalFresh EBT card to receive the $10 incentive on a minimum purchase of $10. The incentive is limited to one family per week and will continue as long as funds last.

“We wanted to make sure we could help as many families as possible,” said Smith, who is also the general manager of the farmer's market. “It's a great way to get people to come to the farmer's market, see what they can buy, and give those in need a little extra for the holidays.”

(Contact Matt Brown at argus@arguscourier.com)

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