Mercy Mena arrived at Heart of the City Farmers Market in the shadow of San Francisco's City Hall on a crowded Wednesday.
Before she meandered the stalls for fresh herbs, broccoli and nuts, she stopped at the main tent. After a swipe of her electronic benefits card on a wireless machine, she was handed bright yellow tokens in exchange for her federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly known as food stamps.
Mena, the mother of a 4-year-old, lives in the nearby Tenderloin, where poverty rates are high, there are no supermarkets, and life expectancy is 20 years lower than in surrounding neighborhoods largely because of preventable diet-related disease.
A grower-run nonprofit since 1981, Heart of the City knows those statistics well: It has made the most successful push of any farmers market statewide to let local residents know their federal benefits are welcome, processing more than $230,000 in electronic benefits last year.
"Where we live there are so many corner stores with bad food, just bad," said Mena, 25, who recently lost her cafe job. "This is just amazing to have."
Other California farmers markets have also begun to reach more consumers who receive nutritional benefits, thanks in part to a subsidy from private and public sources that stretches their buying power.
The Market Match program has been modest — and Heart of the City has simply been too successful to qualify. (It would burn through the available incentive in one market day.)
But now, thanks to $100 million set aside in the 2014 federal Farm Bill for precisely such incentives over the next five years, the program is poised to expand.
Heart of the City Executive Director Kate Creps estimates that access to the incentives could help her market triple its already hefty electronic benefit sales, reaching more at-risk customers while supporting small growers.
An outside evaluation of Market Match and three similar incentive programs in other states — which collectively serve 518 farmers markets — showed that consumers in "food deserts" were buying fresh fruits and vegetables with their benefits.
The research helped persuade federal lawmakers to act, said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center, which manages Market Match.
The catch: the Farm Bill dollars must be matched by state or private funding, and many market organizations lack the time and capacity to pool those resources.
A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) would have brought the Market Match program under the control of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The agency ultimately would have provided the matching funds, applied for the federal dollars on behalf of California's farmers markets, and ensured that even those operating on a shoestring had technical support.
The appropriations committee last month placed the bill in "suspense" because of cost concerns after unanimous passage in the agriculture committee. Ting plans to reintroduce it.
"The beauty of this thing is that it works," said Michael Dimock, president of Oakland-based Roots of Change, which in 2009 created Market Match and recently handed the management reins to Bourque's group. "We're going to go back. We have support on the Democratic side and on the Republican side, and I think it's just a matter of timing."
California has already seen a huge uptick in the purchasing power of benefit recipients at farmers markets, with or without the match.
Mena, who receives $230 per month, greeted a nut farmer by name in Spanish before getting an informal lesson from a sprout grower on his offerings — along with some tastings. The bounty at Heart of the City, she said, is "a blessing, really."
Farmers market vendors once liberally accepted federal nutritional benefits — when they were paper documents. But when the federal government in 2003 switched over to the electronic benefit, or EBT, swipe card, the markets were caught off guard.
"They don't have hard-wired phones and power, which you needed for swipe devices," Bourque said.
The Ecology Center helped devise a wireless, battery-powered point-of-sale swipe card device that satisfied the security concerns of federal officials, and launched a campaign to get them into markets.
According to the California Department of Social Services, which has provided free EBT machines to markets, the number accepting electronic benefits grew from 50 in 2008 to 428 as of last month.
Market Match, generally capped at $10 a week per shopper, served 38,000 families last year who, using just $237,000 in incentives, spent more than $1.5 million at 150 California markets, according to Roots of Change.
Last month, the early-childhood support organization First 5 LA funded the largest expansion of Market Match to date, with a $2.5-million grant to the Ecology Center that will help 37 Los Angeles-area farmers markets.
James Haydu, executive director of Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, which operates eight markets set to benefit from the grant, said Market Match has driven "overwhelming" customer growth at its Watts and Central Avenue locations. "We're gleaning new customers weekly."