Applying a Systems Lens to Improving Farmers’ Markets for All.

This blog is co-authored by Summer Sullivan and Suzi Grady with input by board member Caiti Hachmyer. It is in response to a July article on farmers’ markets in the Guardian. It offers insight into Petaluma Bounty’s approach to policy, systems, and environment change in regards to nutrition incentive programs at farmers’ markets.

A July 2019 Guardian article by Leslie Casimir, “Shopping at the farmers’ market on food stamps: ‘Not just for white foodies’” discussed the epidemic of food insecurity that unevenly affects socioeconomically marginalized communities in the Bay Area. The article also identified key systemic barriers, like immigration status, that unjustly disallow many low-income people of color to shop at farmers’ markets. In this post, we will use a systems-level approach to take a nuanced look at the political and economic contexts in which farmers’ markets operate.

As of August 2019, the article has been updated to reflect even more of the layered contexts affecting Bay Area farmers’ markets. However, in the spirit of wanting to push for more conversation about community food security, farmers’ markets, and justice in the Bay Area, we want to elaborate on some of Bounty’s projects that are aimed at addressing many of the systemic issues that Casimer detailed. From Bounty’s systems-level perspective, we hope to continue the thread started by the Guardian article and propel it forward. Our perspective here is two-fold: we absolutely acknowledge that our food system is not equitable and also there is real work being done to address these injustices.

Farmers’ markets are far from perfect. They bear a documented legacy of exclusivity rooted in institutionalized structures of racism and classism that continues to be difficult to dismantle. These same institutionalized structures lie at the heart of food insecurity, a systems-level injustice that must be met with systems-level solutions. Food advocates, like Petaluma Bounty, have been working at the community, regional, state and federal levels to untangle this legacy of market exclusivity. A large part of this effort is determining how to make markets more accessible to CalFresh eligible folks and historically marginalized groups. There are multiple programs actively aimed at identifying obstacles to market inclusivity with the goal of implementing mutually beneficial programming for low-income customers, small farmers, and the environment. As we will demonstrate, some of these programs have already made huge impacts on Bay Area communities.

Many small scale farmers cannot afford to sell their food to low-income folks because the farmers themselves are also low-income. This is not the fault of the individual producer or consumer; it is a side effect of macro-level economic structures that necessitates most locally grown produce be priced higher than industrially produced goods and thus higher than what many consumers are accustomed to or able to pay. This is why programs like Market Match should be acknowledged as working toward increasing both inclusivity of markets and agency for CalFresh eligible customers.

Photograph: Paige Green /

Market Match, a program of the Ecology Center, was founded in 2009 and now operates at over 290 sites throughout California. (To find out if your community farmers’ market is participating in Market Match, check out Market Finder here.) The program allows partner farmers’ markets to perform a dollar for dollar match on CalFresh EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), meaning double the amount of fresh, local produce for eligible customers and more fruit and vegetable sales for participating farmers. Since August 2015, Petaluma Bounty’s Farmers’ Market L.I.F.E. (Local Incentives for Food and Economy) has coordinated Market Match for around 15 farmers’ markets in Sonoma and Marin Counties.

To better understand how Market Match works, click on the short video below from our member market Santa Rosa Community Farmers’ Market at the Veterans Building.

During the 2016 peak market season in the months of June, July, August, and September—the first full summer of Market Match implementation— a grand total of $14,797 of Calfresh benefits were used across our partner markets. In the same months during 2019, $30,216 benefits were used, which is a 104.2% increase in the span of just three years. During this same period of time there was a decline in CalFresh spent at the Alemany Farmers’ Market in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights from 2016-2018, as the Guardian article discusses. To be sure, both of these accounts—positive and negative—should be taken seriously, but also speak to the nuanced social, economic, and political environments that farmers’ markets carefully navigate.

From an economic perspective, increased participation in CalFresh, known nationally as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), has proven to be an “automatic stabilizer for the economy” as well as a generator of local spending, especially in economic recessions ( This is because SNAP recipients tend to spend their benefits right away, immediately injecting the economy with more dollars ( For example, during the massive 2009 economic downturn, $50 billion SNAP dollars were spent at local entities, which injected $85 billion of local economic activity amidst a nation-wide recession ( Similarly, SNAP has been proven to directly and significantly benefit small-scale proprietors like farmers and serve as a key source of local revenue, especially in communities experiencing high levels of poverty ( Thus, farmers’ markets should be championed a major avenue to both reducing community food insecurity and boosting local economies.

At the same time, we recognize the limitations of CalFresh, rightly identified by the article like immigration status and arbitrary income cut-offs. Similarly, food insecurity and housing insecurity are unfortunately and intimately tied in numerous ways— “rent eats first” is a new colloquialism, especially in areas where the cost of living takes up all of a household’s monthly income. Less obvious to some yet still critical to consider is that access to fresh food does not guarantee that people have a kitchen to cook it in, or that they have safe cooking materials and/or preparation skills. These are additional systemic issues that existing advocacy avenues and programs, which the article only briefly mentions, seek to address.

Most notably, the Guardian quotes Julia Van Soelen Kim and mentions our shared work on a research project identifying barriers to farmers’ market inclusivity. The project, a Farmers’ Market Promotion Program (FMPP) Grant funded by the USDA, was born out of collaborative vision through the Farmers’ Market L.I.F.E. program and rooted in Petaluma Bounty’s mission for a systems-level approach to food insecurity. After listening to community feedback, Petaluma Bounty/Farmers’ Market L.I.F.E. seeks to implement collaborative, community-designed interventions with the goal of making farmers’ markets more welcoming, accessible, and economically viable for everyone.

We are excited to partner with UC Cooperative Extension, UC Davis Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program, The Center for Regional Change, and the Northern California Center for Wellbeing. As a co-lead on the study, Bounty’s goal is to conduct community-based, participatory research to identify why CalFresh-eligible folks in Sonoma and Marin might not shop at farmers’ markets. Even if farmers’ markets are geographically accessible, this does not necessarily mean people of all income levels and backgrounds currently feel comfortable shopping there.

Photograph: Paige Green /

This framework  has the potential to expand beyond Sonoma and Marin and serves to exemplify a major step toward implementing more mutually beneficial practices for small farmers and low-income folks that can be duplicated at markets, state- and nation-wide. To be clear, our data and how we integrate findings into future marketing will reflect the priorities and barriers of our local community and may not be suitable or relevant to other communities. Our study will also publish a place-based research approach and toolkit that will be relevant and hopefully useful to other communities to apply to their own work. 

Within the current polarized political climate, programs like Farmers’ Market L.I.F.E. and Market Match and projects like FMPP are absolutely crucial to creating a more inclusive and just food system. Even though over 42 million people participate in government nutrition assistance programs like SNAP, both stigmatization and the politicization of welfare makes navigating the maze of aid even more difficult and even dangerous. For the past two years, programs such as SNAP aimed at supporting struggling families have been incessantly burdened by administrative overhauls, budgetary cuts, and eligibility flip-flopping. These programs have become political pawns, constantly on the chopping block for funding cuts and amendments arguably rooted in austerity, classicism, and xenophobia.

As the Guardian article notes, this is specifically the case with the new “public charge” language that has, according to local service providers, led many families with mixed immigration status to dis-enroll in government programs used to meet their basic needs. We are living in a precarious political and economic environment where many people feel uncomfortable and unsafe receiving baseline government benefits like food through programs like SNAP. This is why it is important to take a systems-level approach to community food security wherein larger questions about cultivating justice and equity become equally, if not more important, than cultivating the food itself. Rather than perpetuating historical narratives of exclusivity and divisiveness, we instead must work even harder to come together across difference and build more inclusive systems.

Photograph: Paige Green /

In conclusion, Bay Area farmers’ markets occupy a multiplicity of geographical locations, identities, histories, and communities, which is why we need more narratives and conversations to represent these complexities in order to highlight the grassroots achievements and advocacy efforts of many markets. Representing farmers’ markets as only exclusive spaces downplays existing efforts to increase diversity and further perpetuates the stereotypical narrative of farmers’ market elitism, which is a dangerous rhetorical maneuver and self-fulfilling prophecy. If people believe they are not welcome at farmers’ markets they may simply write them off, automatically undermining an opportunity to even know about or participate in programs like Market Match.

A more factually accurate and generative perspective acknowledges the historical shortcomings of farmers markets alongside current intentions to proactively engage more community members from all backgrounds and livelihoods. There is still work to be done, but there is also work to be celebrated. 


Patrick Canning and Brian Stacy. 2019. “The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Economy: New Estimates of the SNAP Multiplier.” Accessed:

Elizabeth Wolkomir. 2018. “SNAP boosts retailers and local economies.” Accessed:


Paige Green /

3 Replies to “Applying a Systems Lens to Improving Farmers’ Markets for All.”

  1. Jaclyn Allen

    You continue to inspire me in my own field. It’s people like yourself that gives me hope in systemic change for the good. Keep up the good work!

  2. Larry Martin

    Thanks for the article. P,ease let us now the impact to Market Match from the 700,000 person SNAP reduction

  3. Gail Feenstra

    Excellent article and well said! We hope the project will provide community-centered opportunities for improving farmers markets and farmers market outreach in the Bay Area.

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