Spreading and Learning from Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program 2022

The ongoing local and global economic instability underscores the importance of supporting society’s most vulnerable. With that backdrop, Petaluma Bounty’s Farmers Market Ambassador Coordinator hit the ground running soon after taking the new position in July to make the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) her top priority.

This year, Sonoma County received 450 booklets, a record high. Petaluma Bounty distributed dozens of booklets during seven outreach efforts at our partner farmers markets in the Farmers Market LIFE program. Petaluma People Services Center, which Petaluma Bounty is a part of, also distributed booklets via three outreach efforts including two at farmers markets. This was a feat easier said than done that took many hours of preparations and execution. 

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Farmers Market Ambassador Coordinator Maria, left, distributes SFMNP and Bonus Bucks on Sept. 21, 2022. Standing next to her is Pegi, the market manager at Santa Rosa Original Famers Market at Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

SFMNP is a federally funded program with the goal of providing low-income seniors access to fresh, nutritious foods at local farmers’ markets. SFMNP benefits are offered to people 60 years of age and older who are on a limited income, increasing their purchasing power at certified farmers’ markets. 

In Sonoma County, the program is administered by the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) in partnership with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). This year was the first time Petaluma Bounty joined a number of service provider organizations working with AAA to distribute the SFMNP vouchers. By distributing at our FM LIFE partner farmers markets, Petaluma Bounty aimed to reach new audiences and increase redemption rates, and prove the need for continued funding and growth for such programs. 

In our region, older adults represent a significant and rapidly growing demographic group. In Sonoma County, 21% of the population is age 65 and older. 

SFMNP program bounces back 

Prior to 2020, typically 250 SFMNP booklets were handed out annually in Sonoma County. In 2020, the SFMNP program was suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic challenges. The program was minimally done in 2021 with only 45 booklets in Sonoma County. The program bounced back in 2022 with a significant increase in the number of booklets, with Sonoma County receiving 450 booklets for distribution. 

Further, the power of SFMNP was multiplied with the Senior Bonus Bucks program administered by Sebastopol-based Interfaith Sustainable Food Collaborative. Bonus Bucks, funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, were distributed in tandem with SFMNP. Seniors who received $50 in SFMNP were also offered $75 in Bonus Bucks, in two rounds. 

Juggling concurrently running programs and nutrition benefits literacy

A seemingly simple act of providing nutrition benefits to seniors was met with many challenges, chiefly, the complexity involved in concurrently running a number of nutrition benefit programs. 

Service providers including Petaluma Bounty handed out SFMNP and Bonus Bucks to customers at the same time, taking care to explain the different deadlines and usage criteria. But no doubt, it could have been information overload for the customer. Many of the SFMNP/Bonus Bucks customers also use CalFresh and Market Match at the markets, plus some markets have their own programs. For example, Sebastopol Farmers Market offers $2 vouchers to seniors, regardless of income, every second and fourth Sunday of the month; and $10 in Extra Bucks to CalFresh customers on the market’s loyalty program. This meant that customers, vendors, and market managers were handling five or more types of vouchers with different denominations, usage criteria, and deadlines. 

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SFMNP vouchers are in $10 denominations. Most seniors receiving the booklets asked what WIC certified meant and how they would know if the vendor was certified or not. A market manager said it would be good to have a list of WIC certified farmer vendors for customers.

Farmers market managers took care to explain the different programs to vendors, but vendors and market staff already face challenges and pressures as they juggle multiple types of payments, crowds, weather conditions, and more. The September 30 usage deadline for Senior Bonus Bucks Round 1 overstretched market managers as they worked to reimburse vendors receiving a deluge of Bucks close to the deadline. 

Managers shouldered the added responsibility of accounting and invoicing for program reimbursement, and depositing SFMNP checks at the bank which created additional hoops to jump through. The hoops include multiple trips to the bank, issues with the bank’s check scanner not picking up dollar amounts, and market managers’ time spent. 

Seniors’ feedback, challenges, and lessons learned

Despite the challenges, Petaluma Bounty staff saw the programs’ positive impact up close and personally. Seniors shared that they were experiencing hardships due to inflation, rent increases, health issues, and more. Many of them expressed gratitude for the government funding and Interfaith’s efforts. “I want to jump over (the table) and give you a hug,” was one reaction Bounty staff received. 

While many seniors were grateful for the vouchers, they said there were challenges in access and usage. Streamlined communication, transportation, voucher amounts and usage deadlines were some of the areas of concern. 

Communications for program awareness and criteria

Many of the seniors Petaluma Bounty staff interacted with found out about the programs through word of mouth from other seniors. The majority of recipients had never heard of the programs and only learned about them by happenstance while visiting a farmers market. Many inquired how they can learn about such programs in the future. The seniors said they are not online checking websites, social media, or e-newsletters. Bounty staff informed them that they can inquire periodically at the market manager’s booth, with the awareness of the limitations of that channel as well. One senior who received SFMNP and Bonus Bucks suggested calling into a radio show targeting seniors. 

Farmers markets strove to spread word about SFMNP using social media.

While receiving voucher booklets for SFMNP and Senior Bonus Bucks, most seniors were attentive and showed a sincere desire to use the incentives properly. However, some expressed concern about retaining information on different deadlines and usage criteria and being able to follow all the rules. At least one qualified senior walked away from the distribution desk because she was afraid she would not be able to use the vouchers properly. One couple expressed concern about implications to their CalFresh and Market Match benefits, to which the Bounty staff assured them they were none.

Voucher denominations and usage deadlines

Previously, SFMNP vouchers had been $7 each. In 2022, that amount was raised to $10 per voucher. Seniors, many of whom live alone or only with one other person, said it can be hard to purchase $10 worth of produce from one vendor. Several said they felt like they either needed to waste the money by purchasing less than $10 worth of produce or waste produce by not being able to consume it all before it went bad. Some unhoused seniors shared that it would be difficult to store $10 worth of produce in non-traditional residences such as tents or cars.

Moving forward, they hoped to see smaller voucher denominations such as $5 vouchers which would lead to increased flexibility and purchasing power for them while spreading the economic benefits to a variety of vendors. Many seniors also expressed concern about making all purchases by the usage deadline, especially for Senior Bonus Bucks Round 1.

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Farmers Market Ambassador Coordinator Maria hands out Bonus Bucks along with SFMNP. With each senior, Maria explained the two programs and handed out printouts.

Transportation

A distribution partner in Cloverdale had few takers of the SFMNP and Bonus Bucks, likely due to the lack of a certified farmers market nearby. Petaluma Bounty picked up the leftover vouchers and revisited some of the FM LIFE markets for additional distribution. This underscores the fact that transportation is one of the biggest challenges for seniors to access locally grown fresh produce straight from farmer vendors. Additionally, most seniors Bounty staff interacted with said that they limit their driving for safety and gas expense reasons, thus compounding the challenge of using vouchers by the deadlines.

Coordinating with local transit organizations to designate intentional travel to and from senior communities can significantly increase the program’s reach, especially to populations who cannot drive or struggle with mobility. This will also expand access to populations who traditionally wouldn’t be able to shop at farmers markets and could lay the groundwork for a long-term solution to fill this need. 

Spreading CalFresh and Market Match awareness

Considering that SFMNP recipients may also qualify for CalFresh, Petaluma Bounty took the opportunity to spread CalFresh and Market Match awareness to the distribution partners so they can share with the seniors they are servicing. When AAA held a training session for the distribution partners, Petaluma Bounty added CalFresh and Market Match information to the presentation. 

SFMNP distribution partners had traditionally been agencies focused on providing services to seniors, such as Catholic Charities, Council on Aging, and In-Home Support Services. Signing on as a distribution partner, Petaluma Bounty strove to bridge knowledge gaps, leverage relationships, and continue our work toward food security. 

Meeting seniors where they are

Distributing at farmers markets was a way to reach seniors in need where they were. Some said that although they liked visiting the market, they couldn’t always buy what they wanted. Some said that their resources dwindled as each month wore on. Rent was rising and everything was getting more expensive. SFMNP and Bonus Bucks helped immensely and at a crucial time, they said. For Bounty staff, seeing seniors’ faces light up was reward in itself and motivation to continue to work on improving program implementation and reach.

This report was coauthored by Petaluma Bounty’s Farmers Market Ambassador Coordinator Maria Wnorowski.

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