How Fresh will CalFresh be? Food Benefits on the Table in State Budget Talks

A program allowing CalFresh benefits to be used at farmer's markets may end up on the cutting room floor.

PUBLISHED JUN 19, 2023 9:37 A.M.
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CalFresh beneficiaries may soon no longer be able to use their EBT cards at their local farmers' market.

CalFresh beneficiaries may soon no longer be able to use their EBT cards at their local farmers' market.   Germsteel / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike License

BY RYA JETHA, CalMatters

Every Thursday at the Fairfield Farmers’ Market, many customers don’t pay for their fruits and vegetables with cash, credit card or Apple Pay. Instead, they go to the information booth, swipe their CalFresh EBT card and receive paper vouchers to spend on produce. 

Under Market Match, California food aid recipients get as much as $10 in matching money — meaning they have at least $20 to spend every week at their local farmers’ market. 

“We already spend $200 on meat and cheese at Costco,” said Mitzi Castillo, who lives in Fairfield with two young daughters. “If I didn’t have Market Match, they would have to wait ’til next week to eat fruits and veggies when my husband gets paid.” 

Castillo buys cherries, strawberries and blueberries from one of the many farmers who also reap benefits from the program, which brings customers and more cash to more than 270 farmers’ markets across the state. 

“For me, I get more money, and for the people who use it, they can feed their family more,” said Salvador Navarro, a farmer from Stockton who said he makes as much as $300 from Market Match at the Fairfield Farmers’ Market, more than enough to cover the cost of his stall. 

Together with his stalls across the Bay Area, Navarro says he makes $50,000, or a fourth of his income every season, from CalFresh customers and Market Match. 

Market Match is the largest funding beneficiary of the California Nutrition Incentive Program, which is run by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. In 2022, the program provided about 38 million servings of fruits and vegetables to CalFresh participants, accounting for $19.5 million in CalFresh and Market Match spending at farmers’ markets across the state.

However, like many initiatives, the fates of Market Match and other healthy food and nutrition programs are in flux as legislative leaders and Gov. Gavin Newsom negotiate the final state budget while tackling a $31.5 billion deficit

Although the plan that legislative Democrats pushed through on Thursday includes $35 million for the incentive program, advocates, CalFresh recipients and farmers worry that the money won’t be in the final budget. 

“What we’re doing now is trying to get the ear of the governor,” said Minni Forman, the director of Market Match, which also includes community groups coordinated by the nonprofit Ecology Center. If the program is not funded in the final budget, Forman says the program will return to fundraising in the philanthropic world, which could mean a major reduction and even the end to Market Match. 

Market Match is the largest funding beneficiary of the California Nutrition Incentive Program. In 2022, the program provided about 38 million servings of fruits and vegetables to CalFresh participants.

“I’m worried, and I’m fighting as hard as they are to make sure that it is (part of the final budget),” Assembly Budget Committee Chairperson Phil Ting told CalMatters.

The San Francisco Democrat authored the 2015 law creating the incentive program that now funds Market Match and also championed additional funding in 2018.

Ting declined to comment on the status of ongoing negotiations between legislative leaders and the Newsom administration, as did Senate Budget Chairperson Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat.

Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Bakersfield Democrat, emphasized the importance of the $35 million for the nutrition incentive program, calling it a “priority” and highlighting her bill to make it official state policy for everyone to have access to enough healthy food.   

Keeping Market Match funded is also a priority for farmers across California promoting the #FundCNIP campaign. They include Jeff Nielsen, an organic avocado farmer who manages Cambria Farmers Market and three other markets. He says that because of the program, people who don’t traditionally go to farmers’ markets find foods they like and keep coming back. 

“They’ll get $10, $20, even $30 (in produce) from the market, which is a really big win,” said Nielsen. “For every local that comes every week, it supports them, the farmers, and the community.”

The worries about the possible demise of Market Match and other healthy food incentive programs are growing amid broader concerns that California faces a “catastrophic hunger crisis” as pandemic-era extra CalFresh benefits come to an end. Even with those additional benefits, 20% of Californians experienced food insecurity in 2021. This year, the number is expected to rise rapidly. 

Last week, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Sacramento to address food insecurity and nutrition inequities. 

“I know the governor has been moving in ways to try to address those social needs, including food insecurity for so many Californians,” Becerra, a former state attorney general and member of Congress, said at a press conference. “I don’t believe that my state, which I’m very proud of, is going to abandon the effort to try to keep people moving in the right direction, and that of course, has to include healthy foods.” 

Where Food Aid Stands in Budget

So far, the Legislature has approved the governor’s more modest anti-hunger proposals, including the creation of a summer program for eligible households to receive $40 per monthin food assistance benefits for each child, a substantial drop from the $125 per month for each child that families received last summer. Lawmakers have also approved the expansion of California’s food assistance program for undocumented immigrants 55 and older, beginning in late 2025. 

Overall, the governor’s May budget proposal included a total of $2.7 billion in state and federal funding for anti-hunger programs. However, the Legislature’s budget includes a variety of food benefits that the governor did not include: 

  • $35 million for the incentive program that funds Market Match and a handful of other incentive programs;
  • $30 million for a CalFresh $50 minimum benefit pilot program;
  • $9.9 million for a broader California Fruit & Vegetable EBT pilot program; 
  • $3 million to extend a CalFresh program to buy safe drinking water.

The original proposal to increase the minimum CalFresh benefit from $23 to $50 per month statewide was estimated to cost $95 million. However, the Legislature’s budget deal includes only $30 million, enough for a pilot program in some counties. As budget negotiations continue, there is some doubt that even the reduced $30 million will make it. 

“I recognize with the budget deficit that it’s going to be hard to include,” Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Van Nuys Democrat who authored the minimum benefit bill, told CalMatters in a recent interview. “But the impact is so big, should this pass and get funding.” 

While Market Match focuses on farmers markets and uses vouchers and tokens, the California Fruit & Vegetable EBT Pilot Project borrows a model pioneered by Massachusetts to promote nutritious shopping at grocery stores. 

Worries about the possible demise of Market Match are growing amid broader concerns that California faces a “catastrophic hunger crisis” as pandemic-era extra CalFresh benefits come to an end.

Eli Zigas, the food and agriculture policy director at SPUR, a nonprofit policy research institute, says that CalFresh recipients predominantly shop at big-box stores and supermarkets. The test program allows recipients to get money rebated directly back on their EBT cards after buying fruits and vegetables at authorized grocery stores. 

The pilot plans to have more than 80 locations running by the end of the summer, but Zigas worries that the final budget may delay efforts to make the program statewide and permanent. Last year, when the state had a record budget surplus, the program received $120 million. This year, supporters asked for $94 million over two years, but received $9.9 million in the Legislature’s budget. 

Back at the Fairfield Farmers’ Market last week, 82-year-old Gurdial Singh walked from stand to stand, using his Market Match vouchers to buy vegetables. “My wife and I will cook dinner together tonight with the zucchini, eggplant and cucumbers,” he said. “We enjoy this program very much as senior citizens.”

Luis Nava, a market manager with the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association who staffs the Fairfield Farmers’ Market, said he wants to send a message to the governor:

“We need this program to help low-income families, and if it goes away, it will take away food from our kids’ tables. We need it. We really, really need it.”

The article titled "How fresh will CalFresh be? Food benefits on the table in state budget talks" appeared first at CalMatters here:

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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