Roughly 500 seniors from throughout the San Fernando Valley converged Thursday on the farmers market on Brand Boulevard armed with state-issued vouchers to buy fresh produce, creating near gridlock on the sidewalk as vendors worked feverishly to fill orders.
The seniors were bused in from throughout the valley as part of an effort to get them to use their vouchers before they expire Nov. 30, as the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Coalition tries to double its state allotment to 2,400 vouchers for the next yearly cycle, which starts in December.
“We need to get more so we can build [the program] because they need food, and they need the transportation to get it,” said Valerie Evans, nutrition director for the coalition, which administered Thursday’s program.
Los Angeles City Council members Tony Cardenas, Richard Alarcon and Wendy Greuel appropriated the funding for the bus transportation to Glendale, which organizers said was most accessible given their busy itineraries.
Many of the seniors were from independent assisted-living homes or were living alone on fixed incomes.
Each senior was given a booklet containing $20 worth of state Department of Public Health vouchers, redeemable only at farmers markets as part of a federal senior nutrition program.
Organizers of the event had discussed logistics with vendors last week, but as of 10:30 a.m. Thursday, it was all many could do to keep up with orders, causing table crowds two to four people deep.
Raul Arteaga, a vendor for his family-owned R&L; Farms, acknowledged he and his selling partner were under-prepared for the onslaught of shoppers. By 10:50 a.m., all that was left on his table were a few melons and tomatoes.
“This has never happened,” he said, surrounded by empty boxes. “It was something we definitely didn’t come prepared for.”
Since no cash is allowed to be used as change for the vouchers, which come in $2 increments, vendors were forced to round up or down. But with each senior carrying $20 booklets, the market stood to gain $10,000, 6% of which goes to the city.
“It’s great for the market, obviously,” said Christopher Nyerges, who helps coordinate the weekly market.
It was a mutually beneficial event for the seniors, who said using vouchers can be a hard task without transit help or encouragement.
Some even acknowledged that they occasionally forget about the vouchers altogether.
“With the economy the way it is, it’s really hard for us seniors to get by, but we manage,” 74-year-old Joyce Judd said, her bag already full with peaches, raisin bread, cantaloupe and other produce.
The economy is not expected to improve any time soon, which is why organizers said it was important to expend all the remaining vouchers before the deadline, proving to state officials that the need is great.
“Without [the vouchers], we couldn’t make it,” 72-year-old Olney Sulker-hall said.
Even for Thursday, the Valley Interfaith Council had to screen seniors because of the limited supply of vouchers. The more vouchers that are allocated in the future, Evans said, the less choosy organizers will have to be.