Shoppers at the Tuesday Farmers' Market. Photo: Nancy Rubin
A $3.7 million federal grant to the Ecology Center will allow it to expand its MarketMatch programs, which doubles the money those receiving food stamps can spent on fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The federal government awarded one of its first Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants to the Ecology Center on Wednesday, which will allow the Berkeley group to greatly expand its program to get fresh fruits and vegetables to people who use food stamps.

The Ecology Center got a $3.7 million, two-year grant, one of more than $31.5 million in grants handed out nationally to assist people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Mandela Marketplace, in Oakland was the other local recipient. It received$422,500.

“Our goal is to increase the health of Californians by increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and to provide additional, sustainable economic development for these pioneering farmers who are at our farmers markets,” said Martin Bourque, the executive director of the 45-year-old Ecology Center.

The Ecology Center will use the funds to expand its MarketMatch program, which allows SNAP recipients to use their coupons at participating farmers markets. For every $10 a SNAP recipient spends at a market, he or she gets an additional matching $10, said Bourque.

“It provides them an incentive for making healthy food purchases,” he said. “It helps overcome the price barrier for the shopper and it also drives those federal food dollars right to California farmers.”

Two children look at fruit at the Berkeley farmers market in 2012. Photo: Nancy Rubin

MarketMatch was started in 2009 by the group Roots of Change. The Ecology Center took over management of the program in 2013 and expanded it from 130 farmers markets and 11 partner organizations to 30 partners at 234 outlets, including mobile markets, farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture outlets, and certified farmers markets from across the state.

The Ecology Center estimates that with the grant MarketMatch will “connect nearly 240,000 food-insecure shoppers with 2,200 of the state’s small farms, stimulating $9.8 million in fruit and vegetable sales.”

“This award is great news for our state,” California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said in a press release. “Making sure all Californians can access California-grown fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables is a top priority for our state, especially during this prolonged drought,” she said.

Recent reports show that 75% of all deaths in the state are linked to chronic disease, which in itself is linked to poor diet. California’s low-income residents suffer disproportionately from diet-related diseases from not eating enough fruits and vegetables even thought they get $7.5 billion in SNAP benefits each year, according to a report to the Strategic Growth Council by the Health in All Policies (HiAP) Task Force.

“Children from food insecure families are 90% more likely to be in fair or poor health, and meals containing more fruits and vegetables cost 41% more than meals consisting of lower nutritional quality,” said Latino Coalition for a Healthy California Executive Director Xavier Morales in the press release. “Market Match helps families with lower incomes access fruits and vegetables that may have previously been perceived to be too expensive,” he said.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...