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New program helps low-income families buy fresh from Eastside Farmers Market

On a drizzly Tuesday morning, a Petaluma woman was buying juicy grapes for her two-year-old at the Eastside farmer's market. Instead of using cash, she paid for the fresh produce with wooden tokens, the standard tender for recipients of CalFresh food benefits.

As a CalFresh recipient, she received an extra $10 to spend on locally grown produce at the market, part of a new incentive program to encourage healthy eating in low-income families.

"I think it's pretty amazing," said the woman, who did not wish to be named. "I had seen (the incentive advertised) on Facebook. Every 10 bucks helps. It made it really nice. Sometimes it can get tough at the end of the month."

On Nov. 20, the Petaluma Eastside farmer's market began giving low-income families on CalFresh benefits an extra $10 to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The incentive program is a way to encourage people to purchase healthy food, said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center, which co-sponsors the incentive.

"The CalFresh benefit is not a lot of money, so people tend to go where you can get more bang for your buck," Hempel said. "A lot of times that is not the most healthy option. Giving the incentive encourages people to buy healthy food."

The average CalFresh benefit, formerly known as foodstamps, is $200 per family per month, according to Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the California Department of Social Services, which administers the federal program. Through October, recipients spent $4.7 million in benefits at the state's 291 participating farmer's markets.

"Everyone benefits," Ramirez said. "It allows people who get benefits to get a better diet, and it opens up merchants to new customers."

Farmer's markets in Sonoma County have been accepting CalFresh EBT cards for two years. The Tuesday Eastside farmer's market has been accepting the benefits since it launched in September as Petaluma's first year-round market. Merchants think the additional incentive will help attract new customers.

"Everyone has to eat well," said Rick Krout, who sells winter squash, chard, kale and garlic at the market. "This should stimulate some business. It sounds like a great strategy on the part of the community."

The $10 incentive program was funded by a $5,400 donation pooled from a number of local organizations, most of which provide health care. Petaluma Health Care District, St. Joseph Health and Petaluma Health Center together contributed $4,000 and Kaiser contributed $1,000. Ladybug Connections added $400, according to Kelly Smith, executive director of Agricultural Community Events.

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