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Over the past year, farmers markets in Marin and Sonoma counties have seen an increase in the number of shoppers using CalFresh (known nationally as SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Market Match.

A recent study conducted by University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), found that CalFresh benefits distributed in Sonoma County in 2020 increased 64% and dollar for dollar Market Match incentives distributed increased 52% from the prior year. These promising trends are holding steady for 2021, year-to-date. However, many barriers remain for CalFresh users to shop at farmers markets.

In an effort to create equitable access to healthy food and support local farms, UC ANR researchers, with the help of community partners at Petaluma Bounty and the Center for Wellbeing, have been studying how to make farmers markets more welcoming and accessible for low-income shoppers and people of color.   

“The goal is to better understand the factors that are barriers and facilitators for low-income CalFresh users to attend farmers markets, support innovations that make farmers markets more welcoming and inclusive spaces for all shoppers, and increase income for regional farms,” said Julia Van Soelen Kim, the project leader and UC Cooperative Extension North Bay food systems advisor.

The researchers, including Gail Feenstra, director of the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), are studying these shopping habits to create a more positive community experience for low-income consumers and people of color at farmers markets. The project team aims to accomplish this goal by working with community partners to identify and reduce many of the barriers that CalFresh shoppers may face.

“There are a lot of reasons why people don’t go – an important one is that many people do not know when and where farmers markets are located or when they are open,” said Feenstra. “And even though money is a universal language, signage in languages other than English is another factor in helping shoppers feel included.”

California has over 700 certified farmers markets; however many farmers market managers are still unable to process CalFresh, which can create difficulties for Calfresh shoppers to have financial access to purchasing local food. UC ANR researchers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara have been conducting focus group studies with Spanish-speaking CalFresh users to better understand the difficulties they may face when attempting to use CalFresh benefits at farmers markets. 

“Many of our respondents were unaware that they could use their CalFresh EBT card at the farmers market, and they were certainly unaware that they could get extra money to spend there through Market Match,” said Shannon Klisch, academic coordinator II for community health education at UC Cooperative Extension in San Luis Obispo County.

“At this point, many of these programs are so detailed and complicated that some of our participants talked about the difficulty they faced just signing up for CalFresh and staying on CalFresh – which has become one huge administrative hurdle that needs to be overcome,” said Klisch.

Some of the ideas for improvement include promoting accurate information about CalFresh benefits through one-on-one appointments, clearly displaying prices on signs in both English and Spanish, creating sales promotions, having a CalFresh representative present to answer benefit questions, and making sure all farmers market managers have the ability to process SNAP benefit cards. Yet, more research is still being conducted to understand all diverse perspectives and any unforeseen obstacles that might impact the implementation of these new ideas. 

As their research continues, Van Soelen Kim, Feenstra and others will continue to analyze how to overcome any unforeseen obstacles that farmers, vendors, managers and shoppers may face when attempting to integrate these suggestions into farmers markets throughout the state.