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California launches program reimbursing CalFresh recipients for buying produce grown in-state

Market Match dollars at the Country Club Plaza farmers' market Saturday, March 18, 2023.
Andrew Nixon
Market Match dollars at the Country Club Plaza farmers' market Saturday, March 18, 2023.

CalFresh issued its last round of pandemic-era extra payments in March. The state has launched a new program aimed at making fresh fruit and vegetables more accessible and affordable to those receiving assistance.

Over 5 million Californians rely on CalFresh benefits, and during the pandemic, many families were automatically bumped up to receive the maximum benefit amount. For many, that was at least an extra $95 a month.

The program, however, ended on March 26. Despite the COVID-era assistance program ending, many families still rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And with high inflation, experts argue that extra financial assistance is still very much needed.

In order to alleviate some of that need, the state recently launched a pilot program to make fresh fruit and vegetables more accessible and affordable for those receiving assistance: The California Fruit and Vegetable EBT pilot program will reimburse CalFresh recipients for purchasing produce grown within the state.

The program will be applied statewide, replacing what some counties and cities have done before, in the form of issuing paper coupons to families that purchase California-grown produce. The statewide program, however, will be conducted entirely digitally, with benefits added directly to the recipients’ EBT accounts.

Food and Agriculture Policy Director at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) Eli Zigas explained the evolution from a paper-based redemption program to an electronic one.

Zigas explained that SPUR previously worked on partnering with grocery stores to provide coupons for EBT recipients any time they purchased produce grown in-state. The coupons generally covered the entire cost of the produce and could be used during the next visit.

"So generation two [of the program] is rather than getting a paper coupon back at the end of the transaction … that money goes right back into someone's account," he said.

Instead of carrying around paper, "the state is able to get a lot of money into people's pockets with very little overhead because the system already exists and it's highly efficient," he said.

Currently, the pilot program is at more than 90 retail locations in the state, split between farmers markets and grocery stores.

"We think it should be at hundreds of locations, and eventually, hopefully everywhere for every retailer that wants to participate so that we can really help the millions of Californians … that are struggling," Zigas said.

He said that with the COVID-era allotments from the federal government ending, everybody on the program lost at least $95 a month, or for "some households, it's hundreds of dollars a month."

The Alchemist Community Development Corporation is working on rolling out the pilot program to markets in Sacramento and Yolo Counties.

"So we now run EBT Access at eight farmers markets in the area," CalFresh at Farmers Markets Program manager Emma Burke told CapRadio.

Burke explained that when the Alchemist Community Development Corporation heard about the new EBT pilot program, they worked at integrating it with their own program, which matches up to $60 of produce from farmers markets per month for CalFresh households.

"We want to make sure our small and mid-sized farmers stay a part of this conversation and are represented as well," she said.

Burke pointed out that CalFresh consumers have been enjoying the new benefits and that the technological roll-out has been smooth. She added that she’s seen consumers at farmers markets receive their cash back but opt to use it at grocery stores at a later date instead.

"That is more money that's walking away from a market in a time when small and mid-sized farmers are really needing that. They're recovering from COVID setbacks as well," she said. "And that's something we're really mindful of and we want to keep innovating this program so it works well for everybody, right?"

To find out start dates for local farmers markets and grocery stores participating in the program, click here.

Copyright 2023 CapRadio