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NCO awarded grant to support farmers and help feed families

Friday, April 3, 2015

On April 3, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the recipients of the USDA’s first ever Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants, totaling $31.5 million. FINI was authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill to help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) increase their access to fruits and vegetables.

Nearly 240,000 food-insecure shoppers and 2,200 small farms will be supported through grant funds awarded to the Ecology Center in California. “We’re thrilled with this vote of confidence from the USDA to expand a healthy foods program that’s steadily grown over the past five years, improving people’s food choices and increasing farmers’ sales,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the 45-year-old Ecology Center.

North Coast Opportunities (NCO) is an Ecology Center partner in this grant, and will receive $103,760 over two years to help grow Market Match – California’s healthy food incentive program, run by the Ecology Center – at the Ukiah, Willits, Redwood Valley, and Lake County farmers markets.

Market Match doubles SNAP shoppers’ buying power. Participating markets have EBT machines – like a debit or credit card processor – and SNAP recipients can simply swipe their cards, indicate how much they want to take out, and receive tokens to spend at the market. There is no limit to how much a SNAP user can withdraw, but most markets limit the match to $10 or $15. So, if a customer spends $10 in EBT funds, he or she is given an extra $10 in market tokens to spend on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and plant starts. Currently, all markets in Mendocino and Lake Counties provide some level of EBT matching, with Boonville offering it for the first time this year.

There is real urgency around improving low-income Californians’ food choices. In a report to the Strategic Growth Council, the Health in All Policies (HiAP) Task Force states that "chronic disease, which is often diet-related, now accounts for over 75% of all deaths in California.” The report goes on to explain that California's low-income residents suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases from lack of fruit and vegetable consumption.

“A thriving local food system and a healthy community go hand in hand,” says Miles Gordon, NCO’s Food Systems Director. “By partnering with Ecology Center and the Market Match program, community members in Lake and Mendocino Counties will have access to fresh, local food that they might previously have viewed as out of their reach.”

In addition to creating access to healthy food options for low-income shoppers, Market Match is also helping local farmers’ bottom lines. In a 2013 survey, 80% of farmers reported that they sold more fruits and vegetables as a result of the Market Match program. And, 18% of farmers even reported that they were planting new acreage as a result of the program.

According to Ben Wolff, a Potter Valley farmer who has been a primary fundraiser for Market Match, “This program almost single-handedly keeps me motivated to continue farming. Even if the current status of farming looks bleak, this is an opportunity to symbiotically serve the broader community.”

Over $81,000 of NCO’s FINI funds will be distributed directly to SNAP shoppers. There’s a catch, though – to access those dollars, the markets have to “match the match,” or at least a percentage of it. That means that over the next two years, the four participating markets will need to continue to raise funds from community supporters. These markets already have match programs and hold fundraisers throughout the year, so there is existing infrastructure to support this effort.

One of those mechanisms is “Food For All Mendocino,” team #49 at the annual Human Race. Every year, this team raises money for Market Match. This year’s Human Race is on Saturday, May 2, and starts at the Alex Thomas Plaza in downtown Ukiah at 9 am. The Human Race is a proven fundraising mechanism that can be used for any non-profit or charity, and anyone can join a team or donate. More information can be found online at www.mendohumanrace.com.

For more information about the FINI grant or to donate to Market Match, contact Miles Gordon: mgordon@ncoinc.org, or 707-462-1955.