Editor's note: After many months of absence the Angry Farmer, Ben Wolff, is back with his column -- this time somewhat less angry, maybe even happy and hopeful.
The short of it : Currently about one in five households in Mendocino county are eligible for food stamps (EBT, CalFresh). Almost all these funds are currently spent at big box stores and convenience stores, despite being allocated as part of the federal farm bill. Here’s a simple way to keep these funds circulating in our community, revive local farms, and model how to make local food affordable for those who need it most.
If a thousand people pledged to donate $17 to a food access program at the Ukiah Farmers Market would you be willing to do the same? With the Market Match Program at the Ukiah Farmers Market, if we can raise $17,000, it will bring $34,000+ into local farmers’ pockets while providing our neighbors on a tight budget with the freshest, healthiest food (details on how the program works below). If we come together around this cause we can not only strengthen our community, we can provide a model for addressing elitism in local food nationwide.
If this is something you believe in, take these easy steps:
1) Sign up now — maybe even offer to cover a family member or friend so word gets out — but please only actually sign for yourself, so the count stays accurate.
2) Spread the word. Share on social media. Tell your foodie friends. Tell them to share with their friends. The only way this succeeds is through a collective effort on all of our parts. Each person has to do barely anything, but unless that "barely anything" happens, this can't take off.
3) Are you or anyone you know eligible for EBT or CalFresh, more commonly known as food stamps? About one in five residents of Mendocino County are eligible. Make sure they know about the discount they receive at all local farmers markets (details below). As funding comes in, this will insure there's no lag in the impact provided to local families and local farms.
4) When the petition hits a 1,000 signatures, head to the Ukiah Farmers Market and stop by the market managers table to pitch in your $17. If everyone sticks to their pledge, the Ukiah Market Match Program will be funded for about a year at its current rate of use. The market manager, Scott “Scratty” Cratty, also owns the Westside Renaissance Market on Clay St. in Ukiah. He has offered to take donations for this program there as well if you can't make it to the market. (Want to make a difference and not wait for a thousand people to jump in with ya? Go to either spot and pitch in your share today.)
5) Look out for a few upcoming columns I’ll publish here at The Mendocino Voice,about the struggles of making it as a local farmer. I will talk about efforts in Potter Valley where the match program is being offered in a retail outlet for the first time locally. I’ll touch on how much turnover there has been of farmers, over the seven years I have been at the farmers market. I'll explore possible funding mechanisms for when the program grows, and talk about the struggles facing even our few more successful small farmers. Whenever you see these articles they’ll have a link to the petition. Please share them and check the list to see if there's anyone you know that would support the campaign but hasn't gotten around to signing their name.
7) This program has been amazing for everyone involved even though it has never had secure funding for more than a couple months into the future. Once it does, it can serve more people, and possibly even match more food stamp dollars per person than it currently does. As this impact on individuals, families, farms, and our entire community grows, think of groups that you're a part of which could help fund this change systemically. Similarly, think of where else this program could be replicated to make the most impact possible.
That's the short version, now for those still with me, here's a broader context for those who want to preach for the cause:
Local food has an elitism problem. All across the country as small farms are struggling to make ends meet, the only viable option to compete with industrialized ag is to seek the highest prices possible for their goods. This is often either at farmers markets or a few higher end restaurants and grocery stores that buy locally produced goods. This is particularly true in Mendocino County where we only locally produce 1% to 2% of the food we consume, and the poverty rate is about one and a half times the national average.
So we’re caught in a chicken and egg situation: People can’t afford local food, so local farmers can't sell enough to get by, so local food stays expensive, so people continue to be priced out of buying local. Until a larger portion of our community can afford local food, our farm scene will continue to be filled with farmers worrying about making it to next year, rather than expanding and thriving.
This petition aims to use money already coming into our community to do three things; revive and kick-start our small farm scene, get the healthiest food to those who need it most, and bring together the community around something we all want, but can't make happen alone.
The food stamp match program was first introduced to the county at the Ukiah Farmers Market about a decade ago. By offering to match dollar for dollar those who use food stamps at the market, the amount of food stamps coming into the market annually grew from essentially $0 a decade ago to $15,000 plus each year for the last few years. With the matching funds, which are often raised through farmer-organized fundraisers, the program accounts for about $35,000 annually going into local producers pockets for farm-fresh goods.
While this program has been a great success for all involved, it has plateaued in recent years. This is a damn shame, considering how huge the market match program could be with ⅕ of county residents eligible to be helped by food stamps (EBT). Only about half of folks that are eligible receive them, but that is still about 8,000 people receiving them every month county wide. With these subsidies, which are allocated in the federal farm bill Congress passes every five years, each recipient receives up to a little under $200 per month. If, for easy math's sake, we assume current recipients receive an average of $100/month, that's potentially $800,000 coming into local households monthly.
To give context to the size of those dollars entering our county, the entire farmers market circuit, seven markets in all, consists of about a million dollars in sales each year. To say getting a larger chunk of food subsidy dollars (EBT) to go to local producers would make a difference is the understatement of a lifetime. Instead these dollars predominantly go to big box stores, convenience stores, etc., and leave our county almost immediately after coming into it. Time to do what Mendocino does best, look out for our neighbors, offer them a hand up, and figure out ways to keep the small farm lifestyle viable for future generations.
Ben Wolff is a swine-juggler and broccoli aficionado who leases 12 acres in Potter Valley. He does tomatoes, peppers, winter and summer squash, greens, eggplant, broccoli, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, carrots, beets, is stubborn and curses too much.
The views stated in this column are those of the writer alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Mendocino Voice.