At the Jack London Square Farmers’ Market, Oakland resident JD Schreiber handed a vendor yellow poker chip-like food stamp tokens to pay for the squash, potatoes and onions he had selected from the stand. The vendor thanked Schreiber for the purchase, and then slipped an extra zucchini into his shopping bag before helping the next customer in line.
Schreiber, an artist and musician, has been spending his benefits from CalFresh—California’s name for the federal food stamp program—at local farmers’ markets for a couple of years, he said. “It’s kept me being able to eat healthier organic foods,” said Schreiber, 47. “If I didn’t have the food stamps, it would probably be out of my price range to pay extra for the organic.”
According to farmers’ market managers, Schreiber is one of a growing number of food stamp recipients frequenting local stands. Phat Beets Produce, along with farmers’ markets in Old Oakland, Grand Lake, Temescal and Jack London Square, all provide a food stamp service that generates as much as $15 to $1,600-a-week in revenue, all of which the farmers in the market get to keep, managers said.
But after November elections, the profits local farmers’ markets—and farmers—collect from food stamp transactions could decline if a proposed cut to the federal food stamp program passes in Congress.
The 2008 farm bill, which sets funding for the federal food stamp program and other nutrition plans, is set to expire September 30. A new version of the bill, now stalled in the House of Representatives, aims to cut $16.5 billion from the food stamp program over the next ten years. If that bill passes, 2 to 3 million people nationwide will lose their benefits entirely while hundreds of thousands of others will receive reduced food assistance, according to the website for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a public policy think tank in Washington.
That cut would spell bad news for benefit recipients who shop at Oakland farmers’ markets and local farmers who profit from the food stamp program, according to market managers and food stamp advocates. “I think people wouldn’t spend as much money here. Maybe just $5 or $10,” said Toveo Hill, one of the market managers at Phat Beets Produce.
Josh Assink, the market manager at the Old Oakland Farmers’ Market in the downtown, said reducing people’s benefits would cause them to re-assess what they purchase with their food stamps. “It would be a loss, in my opinion, for the farmers in the market because those dollars would not get spent there,” Assink said.
For the last several months, Shavonne Smith, 21, has used food stamps at the Old Oakland and Jack London Square farmers’ markets. Smith, who travels to the vendors from her home on 94th Avenue, said that if her food stamp benefits were cut she wouldn’t go to the farmers’ market as much. “I’m sure a lot of people in Oakland wouldn’t shop here,” she said.
In the U.S., more than 22 million people receive food stamps—which nationally is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—and more than 1.8 million households in California are estimated to receive the benefits this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
To use food stamps at the farmers’ market, customers such as Smith and Schreiber swipe their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which gives them access to their CalFresh benefits, provided through the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. As with an ATM, they insert their PIN into the EBT machine and then request the amount they want withdrawn from the food stamp account. Market managers at an information booth hand them tokens worth the amount withdrawn.
At the end of the workday, the vendors give the market managers all of the food stamp tokens that they’ve collected, and the manager exchanges them for cash. The cash is taken from the stall fee that the farmers pay to sell their goods at the market.
In this way, food stamp dollars spent at a farmers’ market are recycled into the same system, said Matthew Sylvester, the market manager at Jack London Square Farmers’ Market. “It’s definitely worth a lot of the farmers’ while to have EBT users in the farmers’ market,” Sylvester said. “It’s strengthening the local economy. Otherwise, people go to 7-Eleven and other like convenience stores that accept EBT, so that money could be spent on chips or something that has less nutritional value, and it’s just being zipped off into somebody’s account outside of the state.”
This year, the Jack London Farmers’ Market has taken in $4,942 in food stamp funds, according to the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association, which runs the market. Phat Beets Produce’s managers say it’s received close to $4,000 in EBT purchases this year, a 25 percent increase since it began accepting the benefits in 2010. Meanwhile, on a recent Friday, Old Oakland Farmers’ Market collected $1,606 from food stamp transactions in one day, Assink said.
Assink, the market’s manager, attributes this high figure to Old Oakland’s proximity to Chinatown, where he said there are a lot of food stamp recipients. “We can’t even stock the tokens fast enough,” he said. “Sometimes we run out and people are waiting standing.” By comparison, Assink said the Temescal market, which is owned by the same association as Old Oakland’s market, receives $200 to $300 in food stamp benefits in a day.
To entice more SNAP users to shop at their produce outlets, markets at Jack London Square and Grand Lake offer a Market Match program that provides food stamp customers with an additional $5 in tokens for every $10 in EBT funds that they’ve withdrawn. Funding for the program was given to the market’s by Roots of Change and Wholesome Wave, nonprofit organizations which received grant money from the USDA. If the farm bill expires without a replacement, federal funding for Market Match and several other programs that affect farmers’ markets will also expire, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
Katie Gronsky, the outreach coordinator for the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, conducted a focus group in 2011 of CalFresh recipients who use the incentive program. “A lot of them said that without the program, they wouldn’t be shopping at the farmers market. They might run out of money by the end of the month,” she said. “They find the program really valuable.”
Supporters of cuts to the food stamp program say that SNAP’s budget is bloated and cannot be maintained and that fraud is rampant in the system. Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas), a member of the House Agriculture Committee, voted for the cuts. “How can you look the American taxpayer in the eye and say we are going to look the other way with people who are gaming the system, with states that are gaming the system?” Neugebauer was reported by The Hill as saying. According to the USDA, SNAP currently has an $80 billion budget.
In June, the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, which proposed cutting $4.5 billion from the food stamp program over the next decade. Once the House decides the outcome of its bill, which makes even deeper cuts to SNAP, a compromise will be made with the Senate. Unless Congress decides otherwise, SNAP will maintain its current funding.
Y. Armando Nieto, the executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit California Food and Justice Coalition, is advocating that no cuts be made to the food stamp program. “The purpose of the farm bill isn’t to find savings for a political party,” Nieto said. “The purpose of the farm bill is to feed people and help our farmers. There is no higher priority than feeding people.”