SPUR’s effort to dramatically expand a program that makes healthy food more affordable for low-income Californians did not come to fruition in the state budget approved last month, but the legislature and Governor Newsom did approve funds that will extend the life of the program and potentially support a modest expansion.
SPUR, in partnership with Nourish California, co-led a coalition of organizations seeking to enlarge the reach of the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program, which helps reduce hunger, improve health, and support the California agricultural economy. The program provides households participating in CalFresh with up to $60 each month in additional food assistance when they buy fresh fruits and vegetables with their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The coalition sought to grow the program nine-fold with $94 million over two years and to more fully integrate the program’s administration within the California Department of Social Services (CDSS). The Assembly Appropriations Committee killed that proposal (Assembly Bill 605) in May, as it had killed a similar proposal (Assembly Bill 2153) last year.
However, the coalition and legislative champions, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula and Senator Scott Wiener, continued pushing to ensure that, at a minimum, the pilot program could continue at its current scale of roughly 90 retail locations across the state. That determined effort was successful, despite the state’s significant budget deficit.
In late June, Governor Newsom and the legislature announced a $300 billion budget deal. The massive package of budget allocations and trailer bills — legislative language directing how funds should be used — includes an extension of the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program. With $9.4 million dollars (Section 163, Item 21 of Assembly Bill 102) and accompanying program changes outlined in a budget trailer bill (Section 30 of AB 120), the budget package will ensure that the existing pilot program will continue operating. The trailer bill extends the program’s sunset date from the end of 2023 to the end of 2026, providing CDSS three more years of legal authorization to continue running the program. The renewed funding should allow the program to continue at its current scale through at least 2024, and it may allow CDSS to add retailers or retail locations.
The trailer bill makes a few other key changes to the program. The legislation
- Directs CDSS to come up with a plan “on the timing and steps that would be necessary to transition the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project to a supplemental benefits program that is fully state-managed, without grantee intermediaries” by March 2026.
- Pushes back the deadline back for the first report on the program — which launched, after significant delay, in February 2023 — from September 1, 2022, to September 1, 2025.
- Changes the program so that CalFresh participants can now earn fruit and vegetable supplemental benefits when they buy any fresh fruits and vegetables with their CalFresh funds, not just when they buy California-grown produce — an idea that carries over from the legislative proposal our bill authors and coalition introduced at the start of 2023.
This continued investment in the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program comes alongside other renewed investments in food assistance to low-income Californians, including $35 million for the California Nutrition Incentive Program (CNIP), which provides supplemental benefits to CalFresh participants, primarily at farmers’ markets throughout the state through a distribution mechanism slightly different from that of the pilot program.
At a time of budget shortfalls, the legislature and governor’s renewal of CNIP and extension of the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot program demonstrates a commitment and appreciation of the role that supplemental benefits play in augmenting the state’s food assistance safety net. Both programs could have been put on the chopping block. Instead, the state’s leaders made their continuation a priority — a significant victory. At the same time, the modest scale of funding makes clear that, despite all the progress made this year, SPUR and others have much more work to do to better match state resources with the needs of struggling Californians.