It’s never anyone’s goal to have to seek help in the form of food stamps or other financial assistance programs. What’s even more out of the picture is having to go back to that kind of assistance, after almost making it out of one’s hole. But even if economists say that things are slowly improving, this is where I find myself: back in the saddle of county aid bureaucracy and food stamps, a.k.a. SNAP.
This time around, there was no uneasiness about applying. Not only am I racing against the rent clock until I finally secure another job (outside of the non-profit sector this time; I love working for causes I believe in, but sadly, those jobs are quite easy to lose because of their dependency on outside funding), I also have a business to run (PGEW) and a health condition to maintain with proper nutrition. Nope, no shame or unease this time; just swift, efficient action, and a lot of patience.
While my visits to that office are far from over, I’m very pleased to have received assistance in the form of SNAP again or, as it’s now known in California, the CalFresh program. It lifts a huge weight off one’s shoulders to know that one’s food supply will be covered, if nothing else. And with the way I’ve honed my shopping & cooking skills over the past 3.5 years (!!!) of writing this blog, those funds will not only come in handy, they’ll go quite far.
The best part of the experience this time around has been learning that one of my wishes has come true. Slowly, but surely, farmer’s markets across the nation are beginning to accept EBT cards as a form of payment. This means that a whole group of people for whom the fresh, local and sustainable foods of a farmer’s market had not been an option, now have access to the kind of healthy foods that are so needed during financially trying times. Because the last thing you need when you’re looking for a job is to be sick & unhealthy – makes the job hunt that much more difficult.
Longtime readers may recall that my last voyage into the world of food stamps both shocked and dismayed me in certain instances. I couldn’t believe the kinds of unhealthy, processed junk foods that were totally okay to buy with my EBT card, while something as sensible as an herb roasted chicken was not allowed (because it’s considered a “prepared” food that is ready-to-eat. True, but have they ever stopped to look at that chicken as an ingredient, and not just a single meal?). With the way obesity-related diseases are afflicting not just the poor, but Americans in general, administrators are finally taking notice, which is why these programs are finally being put into place. We simply cannot continue to live under the guise that healthy = expensive, and therefore, inaccessible.
Now, I’m not going to get too involved in the legislative & bureaucratic background that’s led to this, as this post is more about the actual experience of using the program. But a couple things to note from my research: While each individual market must apply for SNAP certification through the Food & Nutrition Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s actually local, non-profit community organizations that help facilitate the process of accepting EBT/SNAP payments (more on that below). I was also very pleased to find that there are nearly 1,000 farmer’s markets from across the nation listed as accepting SNAP benefits as payment, and those numbers are growing constantly. This is fantastic news for thousands of people receiving SNAP, as it gives them the opportunity to shop for more nutritious foods.
Last weekend, I took my EBT card out for its first trip to my favorite farmer’s market in Sacramento: the Sunday market under the freeway at 8th & X. This is the latest market in the Capital City to start accepting EBT payments, and I practically did backflips the first time I discovered that a few months ago. It wasn’t affecting me directly at the time, I was just excited to see that they were finally going through with it. And now here I am, benefiting from this change. Crazy, no?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect or how it would work; after all, farmer’s markets generally accept cash-only payments. Fortunately, there were volunteers ready to help get folks started. Alchemist, a community development organization here in Sacramento (founded by students of my alma mater, UC Davis… sorry, had to show some Aggie pride there!), runs the Urban Farm Stand, which provides access to fresh, healthy foods in urban areas with a high number of low-income families. Nowadays, they’re also acting as the intermediary between area farmer’s markets and their customers, explaining the process and providing vouchers for EBT users.
Their tent is centrally located at the “beginning” of the farmer’s market, in between my favorite fruit stand and all the deliciously evil bread & pastry stands (Oktoberfeast from Berkeley; nuff said). After chatting with two very friendly, knowledgeable volunteers, I found that the process is quite simple: 1) you tell the volunteers how much you want to “withdraw” from your EBT card; 2) the volunteer then swipes your EBT card for that amount and gives you the receipt with your remaining balance, as you would normally get after any purchase; 3) you’re then given Scrip vouchers totaling up to that amount, for use at participating stands. After a couple attempts at remembering my PIN, I got my vouchers and set off.
I quickly realized that the actual shopping was not going to be as easy as it looked. To start with, not every participating stand has their “We gladly accept EBT” sign on display. This makes it very difficult to know where one can actually shop with the EBT vouchers, and for a while it looked like all I was getting that day was a bunch of almonds and several kiwis. I went back to the Alchemist tent and asked if they had a list of participating vendors, and luckily, they did. List in hand, I did a couple more non-buying rounds to get familiar with the vendors’ locations, then started to shop.
At the first stand I discovered the second obstacle to shopping with one’s vouchers: the change issue. Farmer’s market junkies know it’s quite common to end up with a pocket filled with change after a day of produce shopping, and I’m used to coming home with very heavy pockets if I’m not careful. But you can’t really do that with fixed amount vouchers. Your total must be in round dollar amounts; no $1.25 or $3.45 amounts here!
It’s a bit of a pain the first time around, but the good news is that the vendors are really good about working with you to get to the right total. One stand totaled up my order and I was $0.30 shy of the whole dollar amount, so she told me to grab 3 onions to bring me up to speed (how she knew the exact number of onions, I’ll never know), while another stand patiently worked with me to weigh out just the right amount of almonds so my total would be an even five dollars. Truthfully, I think they did it more for the entertainment value of watching me scramble to do math in my head while being distracted by the next stand’s marvelous minneolas, but I appreciate their patience anyway.
Speaking of vendors, I was pleasantly surprised at the kinds of vendors that are willing to participate in this program (I found out from my favorite fruit stand lady that it’s not always financially sound for smaller vendors to accept the EBT vouchers, as reimbursement can take up to 60 days; more on this in a future article). Granted, only about half the vendors at this particular market accept EBT, many of them being some of my “regular” stands, but I certainly didn’t expect to see the meat people in on the action!
Lucky Dog Ranch, a popular meat supplier in the Sacramento valley that sells only sustainable, humanely raised beef, is one of the participating vendors. And for the first time in my Sacramento life, I made a purchase there. Because I’m usually working with only $20 at a time when I go to the farmer’s market, I usually skip right over the meat, poultry and fish stands, because I know there’s no way in hell I can afford them. Do I want to buy their fantastic, organic, sustainable, products? Heck yeah! Unfortunately, the good stuff is still out of my usual price range, and even if my “money” is coming from SNAP right now, it’s not something I’ll always be able to afford while I’m on this program. But you’d better believe that I’m going to do my best to support a local business that is not only committed to sustainable farming practices, but open & generous enough to care about giving low-income families access to their products – even if it’s just $5 at a time.
When all was said and done, I walked out with a terrific load of beets, turnips, carrots, cabbage, onions, almonds, pistachios, ground beef, cilantro, scallions, Thai basil, kale and more for just $28 of my SNAP dollars. I still have two of my vouchers left, and because they don’t expire, I’ll be able to use them on my next shopping trip. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be able to use money I consider to be sacred – food money – on actual food. Obviously, I get a lot of other ingredients at regular grocery stores, but my produce is also sacred to me; I want it to be truly fresh and of good quality, which is why I prefer getting it from my local farmer’s markets.
Will I be shopping my beloved farmer’s market this way forever? I certainly hope not! I’m eager to get back to feeling “okay” about things like rent and utilities – and food. But I am, and will forever be grateful that SNAP and other general assistance programs exist. I’m also extremely grateful that they’re allowing for people in dire financial straits to have buying access to fresh, healthy foods, and just as thankful for organizations like Alchemist to help put these things together. Not all of these programs are perfect yet, nor are they offered everywhere, but it’s nice to see improvements being made. I have great hopes that this is a sign of better things to come, so that all people, regardless of income, have the chance to eat well. We all deserve it!