On Saturday morning, Christopher and I took a trip outside of our usual range of travel. We went to City Heights, a community within San Diego, to learn about their farmers market.
Right away it was apparent that this farmers market differed from the one we are used to visiting. Ours is held at a local elementary school and has a wide variety of vendors and booths. In addition to fresh produce, you can purchase everything from crafts to fresh breads, and there is usually someone playing live music to the legions of locavores.
The City Heights farmers market is located on a blocked off street between a police station and low income housing. There are significantly fewer vendors (this market is relatively new), and there weren’t many customers. However, as we walked past the booths we saw fresh greens stacked up and boxes of vegetables.
One vendor had long, slender, vibrant purple eggplants and dark green zucchinis at least a foot long. I made a quick note to stop at that booth with the curly green kale for $1. What I first thought was a place for bike parking was group of young punk rock volunteers teaching people how to re-build and repair bikes. But that is not why we went.
A table underneath a white canopy stood at the far end. There was a laptop, a wireless card swiping machine, a group of volunteers in colorful City Heights Farmers Market t-shirts and a sign that said “Use your EBT card here!!!”
Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT cards are swiped in exchange for tokens that can be used at any time at the farmers market. It is rare to even find a farmers market in a low income area, let alone one that accepts EBT. In addition to helping people who already receive benefits, The San Diego chapter of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) has volunteers helping to prescreen people to find out if they qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, and to help them fill out the initial paperwork. They have volunteers who speak Spanish, Vietnamese and Somali.
This market is a joint effort between the IRC and the San Diego Farm Bureau which is also starting similar projects in two other areas. According to a volunteer with the IRC, San Diego County is the worst in the nation for food stamp participation. This means that people who qualify are not receiving assistance for a variety of reasons. City Heights has the lowest participation rate in San Diego.
This was one of the busiest booths at the time we arrived. We waited in line to talk to someone. While we were there, an older woman came up to find out what was going on and learned that she might qualify for a one time senior voucher. A Somalian man was assisted by two women, one of whom helped to translate. No one was turned away as the volunteers explained the processes and helped people with their questions. While we waited we noticed a survey on poster paper asking customers how the market’s prices compared to those at the grocery store. Most of the feedback indicated that the prices were “similar” or “better.” When we spoke with two of the workers, one from the Farm Bureau and one from the IRC, we learned that they do survey’s every week to better serve their customers and vendors.
This particular market is able to offer “Fresh Funds.” Money is donated towards the program and is distributed each week, so that people who spent $5 at the market get an additional $5 worth of tokens to spend there. This encourages people to use their money on fresh fruits and vegetables and helps local farmers.
If you live near City Heights or another farmers market that accepts EBT and/or WIC, check them out and support their efforts. The City Heights farmers market Web page has great information about their programs and why it is beneficial to support community efforts that provide healthy food to all people regardless of income.