As part of my new position with FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, I had the privilege of speaking to the program manager of Maine Senior Farmshare. They generously extended their time to share information about this incredibly innovative program, which will eventually be published as one of several case studies that will be used to create a free guide for anyone wanting to increase food access to low-income customers using the CSA (community supported agriculture) model.
Maine Senior Farmshare serves over 18,000 low-income seniors every growing season. Funded by USDA grants, it provides individual farms $50 at the start of the season for each senior enrolled. Farms range in size from having 1 senior to having 400+ participants. The seniors themselves can spend the $50 any way they like – they can hit the farmstand every week, use it toward a CSA share, or buy their favorite vegetables as soon as they become available. Most of the folks involved use the farms well beyond the $50 — developing a relationship with the farmer in the process.
There are ‘voucher’ programs all across the country that incentivize shopping at farmers’ markets and local farms. But this is the first time I’ve seen a state-level program that puts the process of attracting and enrolling low-income consumers into the hands of the farms. So simple, yet brilliant. Anyone who’s worked in food access can tell you how hard it can be to get enrolled in food assistance programs. Here in Santa Clara County, only 46% of eligible households receive CalFresh (food stamp) benefits. It’s a multi-faceted problem, but part of it is the difficulty of outreach. I could see a program like this giving small local farms, and larger CSA programs, and even more distant vendors at local farmers’ markets, the incentive to market directly to low-income consumers in our urban centers. And for the farms that participate, income up front would be guaranteed – modeling the simplicity and risk-reduction that CSAs bring.
So now my big question is – how could such a program be modeled here in Santa Clara County? Whether for seniors or for families with young children, I could see a program modeled on Maine Senior Farmshare where farms in Santa Clara and San Benito counties could sign up low-income consumers for an upfront chunk of change. Dollar for dollar, I’d guess that it would do more to increase fresh fruit and vegetable access for the most vulnerable households than any program in existence today. It’s not just a season’s worth of fresh produce, it’s a season’s worth of contact with a local farmer, a season’s worth of home cooking, a season’s worth of trips to the farmstand — in short, it’s building a healthy, empowered relationship with food — well worth the $50 price tag.