A woman shops at the farmers market previously located in Downtown Long Beach.
Should residents be able to use their CalFresh benefits to acquire fresh fruits and vegetables from all Long Beach area farmers markets? The Long Beach City Council thinks so, and Tuesday night it commenced a study to examine how it could both mandate and ease the impacts of an ordinance change that would require the acceptance of those transactions.
CalFresh, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides millions of Californians with financial help in purchasing food. The SNAP cards issued to beneficiaries of the program act like debit cards but can only be used to purchase food with exclusions applied to alcohol, cigarettes and paper goods.
The item was introduced by Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, who cited the growing obesity epidemic in the United States and the lack of access to healthy foods for some of the city’s residents as the impetus for the study. If enacted, it could create a larger network of farmers markets in the city that accept SNAP cards and potentially increase the number of low-income residents that spend those funds at those markets.
“We want to make sure as many residents as possible gain unfettered access to fresh food,” Richardson said. “We know that there are barriers to access fresh fruits and vegetables and farmers markets have done a lot of good work in making sure that we actually have access to these in our communities.”
At 36.7 percent, Long Beach outpaces the County of Los Angeles (35.9 percent) in its adult obesity rate, according to the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.
The city is home to a number of farmers markets that are held in locations across the city on nearly every day of the week. However, not all have the ability to accept SNAP cards as payment for their products. Richardson’s proposal seeks to find a way to incentivize farmers markets in the city to have a uniform acceptance of SNAP benefits potentially in the form of reduction of fees associated with establishing farmers markets in the city.
“This isn’t meant to be a burden on an existing farmers market, the point here is that we want to make sure that we do assist these farmers markets because in the outreach we’ve done, these folks want to achieve this but have run into an obstacle here or there,” Richardson said. “This is an opportunity to take another look at these barriers, get some expertise, and see how we can make sure that we look at these permits, license fees, any kinds of barriers to establish a market and to have our own ombudsmen and access to the CalFresh program.”
To be eligible to accept CalFresh, farmers markets have to apply to be certified by the United States Department of Agriculture. Because a pin is required for CalFresh transactions they cannot be processed on more common mobile applications and require special equipment to process payments. However, there are still a number of ways that markets can process payments using EBT benefits.
Farmers markets can apply for free equipment from the federal government or can have fees and costs associated with the equipment waived. California offers a program which provides markets with free wireless EBT terminals. A more traditional method of physical vouchers is also accepted but requires the cardholder to sign the vouchers which must then be mailed by the seller to the state’s EBT processor.
Tony Damico, co-director of Long Beach Fresh, a non-profit dedicated to expanding the local Long Beach food infrastructure, said that the barriers to achieving EBT status at a farmers market are arduous and that often times the advertised grant funds are dried up by the time a person can apply for them.
However, he acknowledged that those markets in the city that have been the most successful with CalFresh were those that also participated in a statewide purchasing program known as Market Match which provides CalFresh shoppers at farmers markets with matching funds (up to $10 per trip) when they use their cards to buy fresh produce. Currently five markets in the city participate in Market Match.
“This program is exceptional and helps to counter the notion that farmers markets are too expensive because it doubles people’s purchasing power,” Damico said. “Currently all of the markets that are eligible for this program are utilizing it and are successful, so that’s something to look at as well.”
If Long Beach were to initiate such a program it would join other cities in the Golden State that already provide that level of access to SNAP beneficiaries. Similar efforts have been undertaken in states like New Jersey, Michigan and Tennessee.
The study is expected to return to the council within 60 days.
The CalFresh discussion preceded two separate votes by the city council revolving around urban agriculture reform. The items, also championed by the vice mayor, were aimed at creating an urban agriculture incentive zone which would provide tax breaks to property owners who allow vacant properties to be utilized as community gardens, and a vacant lot registry, which would create a list of properties in the city with the potential to be utilized as gardens. They were both approved Tuesday night.