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City Heights Farmers’ Market: A Successful Market in a Low-Income San Diego Community

The City Heights Farmers’ Market (CHFM) is the first in San Diego to accept SNAP Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). It was established in 2008 to combat some of the health and food-access inequities within the community. In response to significant food insecurity in City Heights, the CHFM launched a cash incentive program called Fresh Fund, designed to make the benefits of fresh, locally grown produce accessible to everyone in the neighborhood. The program provides Fresh Fund “dollars” to EBT, WIC, and SSI recipients. Approximately 275 eligible market patrons receive up to $5 each week that can be used to purchase produce.

To date, more than $40,000 has been distributed via the Fresh Fund, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of total market sales. In a market survey, 88 percent of respondents reported that they ate “a lot” more fruits and vegetables as a result of the program. When coupled with other programs such as the WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs, nearly half of market income is coming from sources other than cash. Just over a hundred individuals have been successfully supported through the SNAP application process and now use EBT at the market on a regular basis. As of September 2009, just over 41,000 patrons have visited the market, with total sales of $183,000. Farmers have received nearly $152,000, representing 83 percent of market income.

For decades, low-income urban and rural communities have faced limited opportunities to purchase healthy food. In the 1960s and 1970s, white, middle-class families left urban centers for homes in the suburbs, and supermarkets and other fresh food retail options fled with them—taking jobs and tax revenues along with their offerings of healthy, affordable food. This left poor residents with fewer such options, living in areas referred to as “food deserts,” where the disparities in access to healthy food contribute to obesity and related health problems. A nutritious diet and good health are out of reach without access to healthy foods. And without grocery stores and other fresh food retailers, communities are missing the commercial hubs that make neighborhoods livable and help local economies thrive.

Farmers’ markets provide residents with high quality, fresh, healthy food. They also help support small-scale farmers, often support complementary small businesses, provide opportunities for residents to meet and talk with farmers about their food, and create a great space for interacting with neighbors.

Farmers’ markets range in size from community-based markets to large markets run by an organization and serving several thousand shoppers. Farmers’ markets are usually held once a week, but are occasionally more frequent. They are generally organized as nonprofit, community-serving entities and thus combine social and economic objectives. Their vendors need to make profits, but the markets themselves are not profit-seeking entities. At the same time, their operations cost money, so vendors must make enough to cover their expenses.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of farmers’ markets that provide fresh produce and other goods to communities lacking access to healthy foods, while also providing local farmers with a direct source of income. The USDA reported in 2009 that there were 5,274 farmers’ markets nationwide, triple the 1994 total.

Nationwide, more farmers’ markets are locating in low-income communities, providing convenient access to fresh, affordable, and nutritious food. The markets can be successful, but they face the challenge of balancing the need of customers for low prices with the vendors’ need for fair returns.

This tool details the challenges associated with starting and sustaining farmers’ markets in low-income communities of color, as well as some of the successful strategies that have been used to overcome those challenges. It shares possible funding sources both for starting and running farmers’ markets, and it looks at policy considerations for farmers’ markets operating in low-income communities and communities of color. For further information about other fresh food retail opportunities, please see the Access to Healthy Food Tool, Grocery Store Tool, Corner Stores Tool, and Urban Agriculture and Community Gardens Tool.

Last Updated: July 2011