Healthy Options

Farmers markets and urban growers combat local food deserts

Back Web Only Oct 29, 2014 By Morris Newman

The farmers market on Florin Road accepts CalFresh and EBT

(photo courtesy of Alchemist CDC)

The farmers market on Florin Road accepts CalFresh and EBT

(photo courtesy of Alchemist CDC)

Eileen Thomas is phoning in a live report from a food desert  in Sacramento.  “I see a doughnut shop, a liquor store, Jimboy’s Tacos and an AM-PM,” reports the executive director of the River City Food Bank, calling from a parked car near Auburn and Watt.

What she doesn’t see, adds Thomas, is a full-service supermarket offering fresh produce and other healthful fare at a moderate cost. Shoppers in search of affordable produce, dairy, fish and meat “will need to travel to Arden-Arcade, about two or three miles south of here,” she says. People who lack cars, however, are out of luck. “This is what is considered the food desert,” says Thomas.

Despite living near some of the most productive farmland on earth, many Sacramentans are unable to find produce that’s both fresh and affordable in their own neighborhoods, due to the lack of supermarkets in parts of north Sacramento County.  

The good news is that farmers markets are  bringing fresh produce to underserved neighborhoods. At least 10 Sacramento-area farmers markets are participating in Market Match, a program that gives an additional $5 of buying power for every $10 of Calfresh food stamps spent on produce.  Participating farmers markets report a 650 percent increase in purchases among customers who use food stamps.

Federal funding for Market Match fell prey to California budget politics in June, when state lawmakers allowed AB 2385 to die in committee. The Assembly bill would have opened the doors to federal funding for Market Match, allowing the program to expand to dozens of additional farmers markets in the north valley.   

But local champions of delivering fresh foods to underserved neighborhoods have not given up.  Alchemist CDC , a local nonprofit group that seeks to improve nutrition in working-class neighborhoods, is creating direct connections between growers and food stores in poor neighborhoods. Last year, Alchemist formed an agreement between local farmers and Sam’s Mart, a small grocer in Oak Park.  The owners of the same market have allowed Alchemist to set up its own fresh-produce stand outside Sam’s Mart.  

What could be better? Becoming a farmer yourself.  

“One of the things we are most hopeful about is urban agriculture,” says Davida Douglas, Alchemist CDC executive director.  To that end, the organization is currently lobbying for a city ordinance that would allow urban growers to sell produce straight from their city farms, including the backyards of single-family homes.

Thomas, a  food bank official, has a suggestion for local gardeners at all income levels: Contribute  surplus fruit and vegetables directly to food banks, so the produce can be distributed while still fresh. Otherwise, food banks must depend on donated produce, much of which has already started to rot.    

“It’s as easy to grow 15 tomatoes as it is to grow five,” says Thomas.  “We call it ‘plant another row.’”

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