An alchemy of fresh food in South Sacramento

CalFresh JPEGImagine being a single parent trying to make ends meet. You earn enough money to pay the bills, but not enough to feed three growing children.

Maybe this isn’t an imaginary scenario. Maybe it’s your reality. In Sacramento County, we are fortunate to have the CalFresh program, formerly known as Food Stamps and commonly referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

By any name, the program aims to make sure families have access to food. The question is, what kind of food: fresh and healthy, or processed and packaged?

Fresh and healthy is the right answer, because today, CalFresh is living up to its name. A master’s project by UC Davis students has turned fresh and healthy into a tangible option for South Sacramento families seeking nutritious foods that won’t wreck the budget.

The program is called Alchemist. Alchemist executive director Davida Douglas says the program started as a small farm stand in 2007. A year later, the stand was accepting CalFresh benefits. Eager to provide the service on a larger scale, Alchemist is now available at farmer’s markets across Sacramento.

The program converts CalFresh benefits into vouchers that local growers accept as payment. The results can be found at farmer’s markets like the one on Florin Road and 65th Street.

“We are currently pursuing a practice change at the federal level, as well,” says Douglas, hoping to solidify the roots of the growing operation.

Where Florin Mall once stood is now a large parking lot. Every Thursday, the lot comes alive with local growers and businesses selling everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to flowering plants and eggs.

One woman, Mel, a South Sacramento single mom, tells me, “Nutrition is a way of life and I’m glad that I can now support local growers and buy a weeks’ worth of fresh produce for myself and my son for less than $15. And what’s even better is, I can do so with my CalFresh benefits.”

She holds up a bag overflowing with vegetables. The vendors are pleased with the opportunity to find new shoppers. Ayson Nursery of Lodi sells plants every week at the Florin market, including vegetable plants, fruit trees, and herbs that CalFresh recipients can purchase with their benefits. Some goods go for just $1.

When asked how this translates to an increase in business for vendors and healthier choices for CalFresh recipients, Douglas says, “Day to day, maybe not as notable as in the cumulative sense. It’s inevitable to not see an increase on both ends. These customers wouldn’t normally shop there because they couldn’t use their benefits before.”

That’s the definition of win-win. CalFresh says the average amount of food benefits distributed per household is $200 a month. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, with a chart devised by the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, breaks down nutrition costs per person, age and gender and family.

It claims a family of four can be fed for just under $150 a week, or $600 a month. Thanks to Alchemist, those dollars can go toward healthier food choices for people on assistance. Now the trick is getting the word out.

“We’re always looking for groups to speak to, who could benefit from what we do here,” says Amanda Prickett, an Alchemist intern.

Markets are located in South Sacramento, Oak Park, Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove, Natomas, and downtown, all offering ways to use Calfresh benefits. For dates and times of farmers’ markets, check http://www.alchemistcdc.org.

Andrea Weathington

About Andrea Weathington
Ms. Weathington has a long history of community service, including providing assistance to the Sacramento Food Bank, Society for the Blind and the Winter Sanctuary, which assists homeless individuals. Her passionate issues are education funding and the war on drugs. She has been a 4.0 student at Sacramento City College, loves to run, and devotes much time to her 10-year-old daughter.

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