If you’re a farmers’ market junkie, chances are you like to check out the vendors and their wares at markets in other cities when you travel. If you’re still in California, Berkeley’s Ecology Center has come up with an easy way to do this.
The Farmers’ Market Finder, which was launched in late January, is a tool that can be used either online or on one’s mobile phone using GPS to help locate the nearest market to you.
“It can also help get customers there using public transportation, and they can filter by day of the week, or those that accept CalFresh (formerly known as “food stamps” or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, on the federal level,) benefits,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center. “This makes it a lot easier to filter through 850 markets across the state to figure out which one you should go to.”
In Berkeley, many know that the Ecology Center is the organization that runs its farmers’ markets as well as its curbside recycling program. But the 43-year-old membership organization actually does a lot more than that. “Our mission is to inspire and build a healthy sustainable and just future for the East Bay and beyond,” said Bourque. “We work to transform the ideals of sustainability into every day practice through a broad range of programs, helping people get informed and active on different topics, helping steward ideas into projects, and eventually pilot projects that really work and make a difference.”
For example, Bourque said, the Ecology Center began the first curbside recycling program in the country in 1974. “There was a group of people who were outraged at garbage being dumped into the landfill and into the Bay,” said Bourque. “People told them they were crazy and would never make a difference. Today recycling is commonplace.”
The Ecology Center also serves as a resource center on all topics environmental, and has a store at its headquarters on San Pablo Avenue offering all kinds of recycled goods and environmentally-friendly gifts.
While the market finder can certainly be used by those traveling in other parts of the state, Bourque said it was actually developed to make shopping at farmers markets easier for lower-income people. That also falls in line with the Ecology Center’s mission, which led the way in helping markets to accept CalFresh benefits. In 2003, a new method to distribute “food stamps” began in the form of an electronic debit card, and given that the markets didn’t have the technology to accept them, that was $8 billion worth of potential revenue lost.
Now if customers want to spend their benefits at a market, “they go to the information booth, and their electronic card is debited for the amount they ask for in scrip, in the form of wooden nickels,” said Carle Brinkman, Program Manager of the Farmers’ Market Access & Equity Program of the Ecology Center.
“We were the first in the state to make it possible for people to use those cards at farmers markets, and have since helped over 250 markets throughout the state get that access,” added Bourque.
Even so, many consumers are slow to realize their benefits can be used at farmers’ markets, and when they do know, they often don’t know which markets accept them. Which is where the finder comes in.
“The data was not aggregated in any one place previous to the finder,” said Brinkman. “The California Department of Food and Agriculture does not track which ones have EBT access.” Added Bourque, “And while the United States Department of Agriculture compiles a list, it’s self-reporting,” he said, meaning as a result, the information isn’t the most up-to-date.
The finder also has a call-in feature, in which potential customers who do not have either internet access or a smartphone can receive a text message with the information about the market closest to them.
“One key element of this was overcoming the digital divide,” said Bourque. “Mobile phones are increasingly accessible to low-income folks, and while we developed the text-back service as well, we learned through a survey that the mobile application got the most use. Now the ongoing challenge is keeping the data current. We have interns checking in with all market associations to make sure they’re accurate, and we also depend on users to let us know when something isn’t right.”
I gave the tool a try and learned that in addition to the Temescal Farmers’ Market which I go to regularly, there are several much smaller markets in my Oakland neighborhood I wasn’t aware of, all of which accept CalFresh benefits.