California must continue funding Nutrition Incentive Program

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OPINION – In many historically redlined and low-income communities, full-service grocery stores are rare. In these neighborhoods, farmers’ markets supported by the California Nutrition Incentive Program (CNIP) can serve as a vital source of affordable fruits and vegetables for community members.

However, CNIP and its largest program — Market Match — face a serious threat of coming to an abrupt end if funding for CNIP is not included in the FY 2023-2024 state budget. With food benefits being cut despite rising food prices, California families and farmers need CNIP to be funded, so that it can continue to support families, farmers, and communities that need it most.

Market Match launched nearly 15 years ago and it encourages the purchase of California-grown fresh fruits and vegetables among shoppers participating in nutrition benefit programs, such as CalFresh. Market Match allows shoppers to double their CalFresh benefits at farmers’ markets and other farm-direct outlets across California. When a shopper goes to a participating site, for every CalFresh dollar they spend, shoppers receive an additional dollar that can be spent on fruits and vegetables. The program has successfully increased access to fresh, nutritious foods for those in need, while simultaneously supporting California farmers and local economies.

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Congress increased the monthly benefits provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known in California as CalFresh. One in eight California residents receives CalFresh benefits. The emergency allotments successfully kept 4.2 million people across the United States out of poverty in 2021. More specifically, child poverty was reduced by 14 percent and was reduced most among Black, non-Hispanic children, with a reduction of 18.4 percent.

But, the emergency allotments ended in March, resulting in a total reduction of approximately $500 million per month for food assistance in California. The average CalFresh recipient is losing $90 a month, with some households losing $250 or more a month. For the 4.6 million California residents who rely on CalFresh benefits, the end of the emergency allotments means a drastic reduction in benefits despite continuing elevated food prices. USDA estimates that food prices will increase by 7.9% in 2023, making it even more difficult for some to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Reduced benefits will increase the risk of food insecurity and its related adverse physical and mental health consequences. Continued CNIP funding will help low-income community members access nutritious California grown produce.

With food benefits being cut despite rising food prices, California families and farmers need CNIP to be funded, so that it can continue to support families, farmers, and communities that need it most.

Market Match is available at nearly 270 sites across 38 counties and has provided a critical lifeline to thousands of small and mid-sized farmers and hundreds of thousands of low-income families participating in CalFresh. Money spent at farmers’ markets goes directly into farmers’ pockets and the rural communities where they live. Research shows that incentive programs in farm-direct settings have an economic multiplier of 3.0; that means for every $1 of incentives spent at a farmers’ market, that dollar generates $3 of additional spending in the local economy. Our small and mid-sized farmers truly feed our communities.

Market Match not only boosts our local economies, but it also brings new federal money into California. USDA grants are available to help fund CNIP, however, to be eligible for those grants, the state must provide matching funds. Without state and federal funding, there will be devastating consequences for our small farmers and the Californians that rely on Market Match to provide nutritious foods to their families.

California budget leadership must allocate $35 million in the FY 2023-2024 budget for CNIP in order for Market Match to continue for an additional two year term after 2024. Despite California’s projected budget shortfalls, continued funding of CNIP in our budget is an investment that will yield priceless returns in: food and nutrition security, improved health outcomes, economic growth, federal funding, and support for one of California’s most important assets: our small and mid-size farmers.

Shawn Harrison, MS is Founder and Co-Director of Soil Born Farms, a non-profit urban farming and education center located in Sacramento, CA.

Lesley Kroupa, JD, MS, RD is Policy Specialist at Roots of Change, a program of the Public Health Institute. Roots of Change is the founding organization of Market Match.

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