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Farmers are Keeping Older Adults Fed through COVID-19

August 21, 2020

As Californians, we’re lucky to live in a state that grows an abundance and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables – more than 300 different crops! Many of us are lucky enough to live near a local farmers’ market where we can grab a pint of just-picked berries, handfuls of fresh green beans, or a ripe melon. Thankfully, California also has programs that make it easier for everyone to access fresh fruits and veggies straight from the markets – including low-income older adults.  

Each year, from May through September, the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provides checks redeemable for fresh produce to low-income seniors at distribution points throughout the state. Administered nationally by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services Agency, in California the program is operated by the Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), in partnership with 31 of California’s Area Agencies on Aging (AAA).  

As the program normally operates, the AAA’s distribute check booklets to various distribution sites in their counties between May and September each year. The booklets include a total of $20 in checks for low-income seniors to purchase fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs from authorized farmers at certified farmers’ markets. Farmers then redeem the checks for cash.  

The SFMNP voucher booklets are made available on a first-come, first-served basis – meaning that seniors must show up at local distribution points to claim them, and often wait in lines to receive them. Under normal circumstances, this may be inconvenient, but for most, not prohibitive.  

In March, the closure of many of the distribution points for the checks, uncertainty around farmers’ market operations throughout the state, and the strict stay-at-home recommendations for seniors as a high-risk group pitched this beneficial program into uncertainty – at a time when supporting the nutritional needs of older adults has become more crucial than ever.  

CDFA’s top priority in food assistance, like CAFB’s, has been ensuring food security for those in need. SFMNP managers at CDFA knew they would have to get creative to work out a way of getting that produce from farmers’ fields to seniors in need while following social distance guidelines.  

In April, the SFMNP team invited Steve Linkhart, who runs CAFB’s Farm to Family program, to brainstorm a solution that could leverage CAFB’s member network and run logistics at scale. With a group of stakeholders and advisors that included Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), California Farm Bureau Federation, CA Department of Social Services, and CAFB member food banks who operate senior food programs (CSFP), a new program model was born to meet this moment.  

In the 2020 pandemic version of the SFMNP, the program is bringing produce to seniors. CAFB issued an RFP and farmers submitted bids for picking, packing, and shipping boxes to seven food banks and partner agencies across the state, from San Diego up to Humboldt. Each box is just like a CSA box any of us might be getting, with a variety of foods adding up to about a week’s worth of fresh produce to complement the proteins, grains, and other staples seniors receive through food banks and their partners. Food banks are serving as the critical link, receiving and in some cases further distributing the boxes to direct distributions points where seniors will pick up the produce alongside their boxes of shelf-stable groceries. Throughout August and September, seven food banks will receive a total of 20,328 boxes to distribute.  

CAFB is proud to have supported this show of partnership and creative problem-solving. We salute the perseverance and ingenuity of CDFA staff, the operational wizardry and flexibility of our member food banks, the resilience of California farmers, and everyone involved who worked to ensure that this vital program would rise above the pandemic.  

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