Heart of the City Farmers’ Market and Kaiser Permanente: A Produce Partnership and so much more…

EVERYTHING SOUTH CITY
Submitted by Joe Fragola, Kaiser Permanente

Every Wednesday and Sunday San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza bursts with community-centered activity thanks to the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market (HOCFM), a 35-year-old farmer-operated market that sustains small farms and makes healthy produce accessible to customers of all income ranges.

“We are dedicated to the principle that everyone has the right to enjoy the benefits of fresh produce within a few blocks of where they live or work,” said Kate Creps, executive director, HOCFM. “The market serves the Civic Center and specifically the Tenderloin neighborhood, which is a fresh food desert with no supermarket, dominated by corner liquor stores and fast food chains.”

When Kaiser Permanente began its partnership with HOCFM in 2014, Creps proposed support for the market’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) program, which enables customers who take part in California’s food assistance program to use a card to redeem their benefits. With Kaiser Permanente’s initial donation, HOCFM was able to increase its participation in the EBT program by 12 percent, which equated to over $25,000 of fresh produce purchased by low-income patrons. An added benefit to more customers purchasing through the program is the direct support for small farmers who are the market’s primary vendors.

“Once we learned how much our initial support for the EBT program increased access to fresh produce for many of the Tenderloin’s most vulnerable residents, we were eager to grow our partnership with the market,” said Randy Wittorp, public affairs director, Greater San Francisco Area. “For years, we have financially supported San Francisco community gardens, healthy cooking classes, and nutrition programs. This partnership was a natural next step.”

In 2015, Kaiser Permanente helped HOCFM launch the first ever Market Match program for the Tenderloin neighborhood, which provides low-income customers with up to $5 free to buy additional fruits and vegetables when they use their EBT card at the market. This has been crucial for those struggling to afford healthy food in a city with the highest cost of living in the nation. Kaiser Permanente’s donations in 2015 and 2016 enabled HOCFM to distribute $80,000 in match dollars to stretch limited food budgets, which also helped to sustain small farmers during the worst drought in California’s history. Kaiser Permanente’s support of the Market Match program helped grow HOCFM’s EBT sales by 35 percent in only two years.
Due to the high needs of the community in which it operates, the market has accepted food stamps (now the EBT program) since it first opened in 1981. Since that time, the market’s EBT program has become the largest and most successful in California.

“Kaiser’s support has enabled us to hire an EBT Program Manager to staff the very busy market information tent and provide orientation to new and existing customers,” said Creps. “We had no idea that the program would grow so quickly in three years, but the numbers are just off the charts.”

In addition to the EBT program, Kaiser Permanente’s donation directly supports the 53 small farmers who sell their products at the market. “We’ve seen farms go out of business in one week due to the drought and the economic stress it creates,” said Creps. “We strive to keep our participation costs minimal so the farmers can sell at a low price point and every donated dollar we receive offsets the stall fees we ask farmers to pay.”

Looking forward, Kaiser Permanente will continue to support the HOCFM with additional donations that could include healthy cooking demos both at the market and in Tenderloin SROs, whose residents often need to learn how to prepare the fresh produce they purchase at the market.

“There are so many positive ways the market impacts the neighborhood,” said Wittorp. “We look forward to leveraging our success and continuing our partnership with Kate and her staff in new and creative ways.”