Produce to the People

Photo courtesy of the Portland Farmers Market

The bottom line goal for the Alberta Cooperative Grocery in Portland, OR, is to connect people with fresh, high quality, affordable food. This was the driving force in the formation of their co-op in 1997 and continues to be reflected in their store and in their support for the community. This support includes helping to make the healthy, fresh, local food from the farmers market down the street affordable for families struggling to put food on the table.

“It’s central to our mission to open direct ties between people and farms and to make fresh food accessible,” says Theresa Calabrese, marketing and outreach coordinator of the Alberta Cooperative Grocery.

Alberta, a fast-changing northeast Portland neighborhood, is full of upscale cafés and quaint boutiques featuring handmade wares. But these are newcomers on the scene. Twelve years ago, when the cooperative first opened its doors, many storefronts were abandoned and boarded up. As in many neighborhoods that have undergone such an extreme and relatively quick metamorphosis, current residents represent an especially broad spectrum of economic levels. Which is why, says Calabrese, the Alberta Cooperatives is an unfailing supporter of Fresh Exchange.

Fresh Exchange is an EBT (electronic benefit transfer) matching program available at several Portland-area farmers markets to shoppers who qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Providing 26 million Americans with supplemental food assistance each year, SNAP is the current iteration of the food stamps program. Shoppers with EBT benefits can go to the farmers market and withdraw money from their benefits in the form of tokens they can use at farmers’ stalls. Fresh Exchange will then match their withdrawal with up to $7 additional dollars per trip.

Farmers Market Fund, a nonprofit that oversees incentive programs in Portland’s farmers market network, started Fresh Exchange as a way to attract more SNAP recipients to the markets. Rosemarie Sweet, president of the board of the Farmers Market Fund, said that the organization surveyed SNAP recipients in several parts of the city, including the Alberta neighborhood, to learn about peoples’ interest in shopping at farmers' markets and the barriers.

“Seniors were very interested in supporting the markets and were more willing to spend extra money on fresh food,” says Sweet of the survey results. “But logistics were important to them: [having] transportation to the market, and having a place to sit down. For families, the main concern was getting the most amount of food for the least amount of money.”

Fresh Exchange and its goals were important enough to the Alberta Cooperative that they provided a seed grant to get the program off the ground at the nearby King Market, a farmers market just down the street from the cooperative. That was five years ago; the program is now at four neighborhood farmers markets across the city. Calabrese says that in addition to the co-op’s annual donation of $4,000, the Alberta Cooperative also invites its shoppers to donate to Fresh Exchange, adding another several hundred dollars to the total gift.

“Through our register donation program we are able to further connect our customers, many of whom use SNAP benefits, with the program and the farmers market,” says Calabrese.

One farmers market vendor has also found a unique way to get involved with the program. Pine Mountain Ranch, a purveyor of a wide range of meats from buffalo to yak, gives an additional 10 percent discount to Fresh Exchange customers.

“We realized there are a lot of people in distress and we wanted help increase their access to great food—in our case, grass-fed meat, which is more expensive than conventionally-raised meat,” says Loretta Spahmer who runs the business with Alan Russeau. The market stall offers instructions on how to cook inexpensive cuts in delicious ways for stew, kebabs and stock.

Spahmer and Russeau make a concerted effort to make Fresh Exchange customers feel equally comfortable using their tokens in their booth as those paying cash. "Everyone deserves access to fresh, healthy food," says Spahmer.

Calabrese couldn’t agree more.