The Long Drive to Fresno

I drove to Fresno and back yesterday, in my old pickup truck. Traffic was light, and I drove fast, but it still took three hours each way from Oakland, and used two tanks of gas. Fresno is farm country, and almost equidistant from the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Highway 99 was a solid caravan of big trucks moving stuff to the cities. The road was smooth and the gas was cheap and there was a McDonald’s at every off-ramp.
Many Southeast Asian immigrant farmers have settled in the Fresno area in the last twenty years and make their living growing vegetables intensively on farms of less than ten leased acres, driving to farmers’ markets in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to sell directly to urban customers. Their old pickups tuck themselves into the stream of trucks headed for the cities two, three, five times a week and they drive for hours in order to get to where people will pay a fair price for vegetables. As I drove the road that they drive so often, I couldn’t help but feel that something is wrong with this system.
I was in Fresno for a meeting about hunger and food access. There are a lot of hungry people in Fresno and a lot of food stamp recipients. Food stamps in California are now being switched, county by county, from paper coupons to a plastic card that gets swiped at the store register like a debit card. Fresno is due to switch over in May. Alameda went on-line with these electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards last August. In all of Alameda County, only Berkeley Farmers’ Markets (as of this writing) have the wireless hand-held point-of-sale (POS) devices to read those EBT cards. Since farmers’ markets don’t have electricity, this means that people with the new cards cannot shop with them at any other Alameda County farmers’ markets. The Ecology Center will be working with the California Nutrition Network to help the other markets get their technology and systems on-line to change this situation.
I was in Fresno to show off our cool new POS device and talk with social service advocates, county staff, and market managers about the challenges of bringing this twenty-first-century wireless technology into a county where 50 languages are spoken and small-scale farmers sell as much produce as they can in parking lots, flea markets, and local farmers’ markets to many of Fresno’s hungry people in order to avoid the long drive to the big city. The US Department of Agriculture application for a merchant to accept food stamps is four pages long, only in English, and asks for a business license, a bank account number, and social security numbers. It takes 45 days to process. After that comes the contract for leasing the POS device, if the farmer qualifies and sells in one of the twelve designated high-volume certified farmers’ markets, and then the one-hour training in operations, also in English. I couldn’t help but feel that Fresno was going to be hungrier soon, with less food access.
At the Berkeley Farmers’ Market last Tuesday, a woman with a European accent asked me about EBT. I explained our system and showed our POS device and the wooden tokens that we give to the customers to shop with at the market. Then she asked a question: Why would anyone prefer this whole system to cash? Why doesn’t the government just give food benefits in cash to people who need food, and let them shop where they want like anyone else? Very good question.
Support small-scale farmers at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. They grow healthful and tasty food and they need you.

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