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Assemblymember Alex Lee Seeks $30 Million to Revive CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Project

For immediate release:

The CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Pilot Project has benefited tens of thousands of Californians, making healthy foods more affordable for low-income families. But the program is soon coming to an end given the lack of funding, and CalFresh families will have less money to put food on their tables. 

The CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project aims to improve food security, nutrition and health of CalFresh recipients. It provides up to $60 in nutrition incentives when CalFresh households purchase fresh fruits and vegetables with their CalFresh benefits. 

In 2023, the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) went live with the EBT Pilot Project. For every $1 of CalFresh EBT spent on any fresh fruits and vegetables at a participating retailer, CalFresh recipients get $1 back on their EBT card to spend on any CalFresh EBT-eligible food. 

With the pilot project anticipated to end in mid-April, tens of thousands of families will see their CalFresh benefits reduced during this time of urgent need. In an effort to revive the project, Assemblymember Alex Lee has requested $30 million from the FY 2024-25 budget to fund the program from July 2024 to June 2025. 

“The budget is our expression of values,” said Assemblymember Lee. “As Chair of the Assembly Human Services Committee, I’m committed to supporting safety net programs like the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project for the most vulnerable Californians. Food insecurity is associated with billions in healthcare costs annually. At a time when the state is facing a serious budget deficit, we have to prioritize meeting Californians’ basic needs including access to adequate and nutritious food. The EBT Pilot Project is effective and efficient in reaching Californians struggling with hunger. We cannot let this important program end.” 

The EBT Pilot Project benefits more than 43,000 CalFresh households, comprising an estimated 75,000 people. It provided $1.9 million in rebates for fruits and vegetables in February 2024. 88 grocery stores and several farmer’s markets across the state are currently participating in the program. Arteaga’s Food Center is one of the retailers with four locations in Santa Clara County offering supplemental benefits. 

“In California, we proudly stand as the largest producers of fruits and vegetables, playing a crucial role in feeding not just our state but the nation,” said Lupe Lopez, owner of Arteaga's Food Center. “Despite this abundance, a paradox exists where many Californians find it challenging to incorporate fresh produce into their daily diets due to financial constraints. The CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program has been a beacon of hope, significantly improving access to nutritious foods for countless individuals and families. By providing essential support, this initiative has not only enhanced the overall health and well-being of many but has also represented a critical lifeline for those whose circumstances limit their access to healthy food options. The termination of this program would not only retract this vital support but also deliver a devastating blow to the progress made in public health and nutrition equity across our state.” 

Another retailer is Harvest Market with two locations in Mendocino County providing nutritional incentives through the EBT Pilot Project. 

“When we became the first stores to launch this pilot program the EBT benefits cliff was looming. We know that many people are suffering with the rapid rise in food costs that have been passed down through the food chain, as well as housing costs in our area,” said Jennifer Bosma, Vice President of Harvest Market. 

“Many people in our community have come to depend on the $60 match to help make their food dollars stretch and allow them to pay other necessary bills,” Bosma added. “Allowing everyone equitable access to healthy food helps improve the quality of life in our community. We at Harvest believe that as an independent locally owned grocery store, we have an obligation to our community to provide support however we can. Supporting our local food bank and other organizations that provide food and other necessities to low-income families is just a piece of the puzzle. We hope that the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program is allowed to continue and in the future be available to all who need it.” 

In Southern California, Mother’s Nutritional Center has 79 locations spanning five counties that provide supplemental benefits for CalFresh recipients. 

“We feel so privileged to be a part of this much needed and historical program,” said Richard Flores, President of Mother’s Nutritional Center. “In these past months, we’ve been the recipient of so much appreciation and gratefulness from the CalFresh recipients who came in to shop with us. The participants’ reactions on receiving these benefits bring tears to our staffs’ eyes. It is such a rewarding program for both the CalFresh participants and our stores’ staff.” 

Dawn Bonnema is a CalFresh participant served by Mother’s Nutritional Center. 

“It’s hard being a senior with not much money to get fruits and vegetables. And also me being diabetic, I need to eat … healthier. And it’s coming in handy,” Bonnema, a Los Angeles EBT participant, said of the program. “I’m so happy that it’s [here], the program.” 

The EBT Pilot Project has served as a critical source of supplemental benefits for individuals and families. CalFresh recipients already saw their benefits drop as COVID-19 federal aid for extra CalFresh benefits ended last year. As noted by the California Budget & Policy Center, the loss of additional COVID-19 funding meant that families’ monthly CalFresh assistance were reduced by at least $95 and up to $258. According to the California Association of Food Banks, more than 20% of households experienced food insecurity as of February 2024. 

"The CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT program is doing exactly what we hoped it would: reducing hunger, improving health, and supporting the California agricultural economy. It's a huge success," explained Eli Zigas, Food & Agriculture Policy Director at SPUR, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation that proposed to create the program. "But this wildly successful program will be forced to end — and tens of thousands of CalFresh participants will see a drop in their benefits — if the legislature and Governor don't continue to invest in the program at the scale Assemblymember Lee has proposed." 

Like SPUR, the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute at the University of California San Diego is a pilot grantee helping coordinate and implement the program. 

"I have seen firsthand the transformative power of the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project in the communities that we serve,” said Joe Prickitt, Director of the UC San Diego Center for Community Health at the Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute. “By providing families with increased access to fresh and nutritious fruits and vegetables, the Pilot Project has not only improved food security and the health and well-being of the participants, but has also strengthened our local economy and supported our local farmers and retailers. It's a win-win for everyone.” 

Beyond the budget request, Assemblymember Lee has also introduced AB 3229 to accelerate the process of making the EBT Pilot Project a permanent program. The legislation would require CDSS to submit a report to the Legislature by January 1, 2025 on the timing and steps necessary to transition the EBT Pilot Project to a supplemental benefits program that is fully state-managed.

Advocates across California are voicing their support for the project and the need for additional funding to be allocated. 

“Blue Zones Project Monterey County wholeheartedly champions the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project. Having collaborated closely with Aspire Health to introduce Double Up Food Bucks in Monterey County, we understand the profound impact of Nutrition Incentive Programs in bolstering CalFresh Benefits and alleviating food insecurity among low-income California families,” said Dalila Alvarado, Food Environment Lead and Genevieve LeBlanc, Senior Food Policy Lead from Blue Zones Project Monterey County. “In Monterey County where over 40% of residents face food insecurity, this initiative is not just a policy but a lifeline, addressing the urgent need for equitable access to nutritious food and fostering healthier, more resilient communities. We stand firmly behind the $30 million allocation in the 2024-2025 Budget to restart the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project, ensuring more than 43,000 households can access the vital fresh produce they need.” 

“Our data consistently demonstrates that CalFresh is the most impactful tool we have to combat Nutrition Insecurity, and when the CalFresh benefit is higher, hunger is lower,” said Alondra Alvarado, President and CEO of the San Diego Hunger Coalition. “We have heard from participants how this pilot project has helped them stretch their CalFresh dollars to purchase healthy fruits and vegetables: a woman with diabetes who can now eat the green diet her doctor recommended, a young mother who can give her children the nutrients they need. Without necessary funding, the almost 364,000 CalFresh participants in San Diego County will see a cut and we will continue to see a rise in hunger across the state.”

“Low-income families in our community rely on the additional nutritious food that the CalFresh Fruit & Vegetable EBT Pilot provides,” said Tracy Weatherby, Vice President of Strategy and Advocacy at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley. “Ending the pilot leaves thousands of our neighbors struggling to get the nutritious food they need – at a time when hunger in our community is already so high.”

“California grocers are committed to nourishing our communities with a variety of fresh and healthful food options,” said Leticia Garcia, Director of State Government Relations at the California Grocers Association. “The California Grocers Association is a proud partner of the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Project and supports the program’s continued funding to help widen access to wholesome and nutritious offerings in our stores.”

The CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project was heard in the Assembly Subcommittee No. 2 Human Services on March 20, 2024. 

See here for more on video testimonials of the CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project from customers of Mother’s Nutritional Center, and photos of Assemblymember Alex Lee.