Berkeley’s Ecology Center receives $240,000 grant from USDA

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Berkeley’s Ecology Center received a grant Friday of approximately $240,000 with the aim of enhancing low-income families’ access to healthy foods and helping small farms that grow healthy produce.

The grant, provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be given out over the course of three years to assist the center in improving the usefulness of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, at farmers’ markets.

According to an Ecology Center press release, the USDA will allocate a sum total of more than $1 million to eight California organizations, including the center.

In a media conference call, Kevin Concannon — undersecretary of Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at the USDA — said the Ecology Center was selected for funding because of its unique track record and proposal.

“We were impressed with the fact that the Ecology Center was going to reach out to more than 300 California farmers’ markets that don’t yet offer SNAP access,” Concannon said in the conference call.

According to Concannon, other significant elements of the Ecology Center’s proposal included plans to offer technical assistance and training for farmers, shopper outreach and a variety of aids, such as a mobile application, to help SNAP participants find farmers’ market sites that accept SNAP.

On top of the plans in its proposal, the Ecology Center also plans to expand its staff, improve its outreach to SNAP recipients, fund its printing needs for outreach material and improve its website for finding farmers’ markets that accept SNAP.

“We think it’s really an important investment for small farmers, for economic development (and) for the health of SNAP shoppers,” said Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center. “It’s sort of a triple win, so we feel really honored and proud to receive this money amongst other really great organizations who are doing powerful and important work.”

According to Bourque, SNAP sales in California farmers’ markets were nearly $3.77 million in 2014. The Ecology Center’s goal is to increase this figure to $5 million by the time the grant expires.

“When (money) goes to major retailers, which is where the lion’s share of it goes, very little of it makes it back to the farming community,” Bourque said. “However, when that money is spent at a farmer’s market, it goes into the farmer’s pocket, and it goes right back to their local economy.”

This is not the first time the USDA has worked with the Ecology Center. In March, the Ecology Center received a $3.7 million grant as part of the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive, which had a similar goal to that of the grant awarded this month.

Contact Ericka Shin at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ericka_shin