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California leads nation in farmers markets

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The number of farmers markets in California grew 25.7 percent last year, making the state home to one out of 10 markets nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest tally.

The 2011 National Farmers Market Directory, released last week, counted 7,175 markets in the country – a 17 percent increase since 2010. California remains the nation's leader in farmers markets with 729 locations, up from 580 last year.

Farmers markets have grown substantially since the USDA began compiling its directory in 1994, when it reported just 1,755 markets nationwide. The fastest-growing states for farmers markets this year were Alaska – a 46 percent jump over last year with 35 markets – and Texas, whose 166 markets represented a 38 percent increase.

In California, farmers markets stretch as far north as Crescent City and as far south as Imperial Beach. But a searchable database and map show few locations along the state's sparsely populated eastern border. Increasing the number of farmers markets, as well as access to them, is one way policymakers and public health advocates are trying to combat obesity and food deserts and promote healthy eating. 

Farmers markets are among the types of retailers eligible for financing under the California FreshWorks Fund, launched last month. And more and more farmers markets are accepting electronic benefit transfer cards, which are used to dispense CalFresh food stamp dollars and other public assistance benefits.

More than 300 farmers markets and 139 vendors in California currently accept EBT cards, said Oscar Ramirez, spokesman for the state Department of Social Services. More than $197,000 in EBT purchases were made at farmers markets last month, up from less than $130,000 in July 2010.

At some of those markets, CalFresh recipients can leverage their money to buy more fruits, vegetables and nuts. Through a program run by the California Farmers Market Consortium, more than 70 farmers markets in 16 counties offer matching funds for produce purchases, so $5 in CalFresh benefits, for example, might provide an extra $5 to spend on specialty crops at the market.

In the first three months of 2011, the most recent dates available, the program offered incentive funds to more than 3,000 customers, said Jezra Thompson, program manager at Roots of Change, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that organizes the consortium.

"What it means for clients is more purchasing power," Thompson said. "They're able to purchase more with their (CalFresh) benefits, which encourages them to eat more fruits and vegetables."

The consortium is in its second year, supported by about $1 million in grant funding through the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The program has raised an additional $351,900 for incentive funds through private and public sources and hopes to become a model for national policies.

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