Rebeca Gonzalez grew up eating artichokes from her grandmother's farm in the central Mexican state of Tlaxcala. But for years after immigrating to the U.S., she did not feed them to her own kids because the spiky, fibrous vegetables were too expensive on this side of the border.
When she prepared meals at her family's home in Garden Grove, Calif., Gonzalez would also omit avocados, a staple of Mexican cuisine that is often costly here.
"I saw the prices and I said, 'No, never mind,'" said Gonzalez, a 47-year-old child care worker who receives about $500 a month in food stamps.
But those items are no longer out of reach for her family. Since enrolling last year in a program that rewards food stamp beneficiaries for buying more fresh produce, Gonzalez has regularly filled her shopping cart with the fruits and vegetables of her childhood -- not only avocados and artichokes, but pomegranates, various types of squash and more.
Participation in the program, called "Mas Fresco," or "More Fresh" in English, gives Gonzalez an additional $40 a month to spend on produce, allowing her to broaden the palates of her three U.S.-born children. "The good thing is my family likes to try the new vegetables," she said. "Now I can buy them because I have the extra money."
The University of California, San Diego is administering Mas Fresco and studying its results with a $3.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has funded similar efforts in other states, including Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and New Mexico. The dollars invested in those states have been aimed at inducing food stamp recipients to buy more produce at farmers markets or at mobile markets that visit low-income neighborhoods.
Mas Fresco is open to Southern Californians in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- the official name for food stamp benefits.
The goal of the four-year program, like that of its counterparts in other states, is to improve diets and overall health by making fresh produce more affordable.
"We know food insecurity and, unfortunately, chronic disease go hand in hand," said Joe Prickitt, a UC San Diego dietitian who is senior director of Mas Fresco. "For SNAP participants, there's a real cost barrier to buying fruits and vegetables. They say they're just too expensive."
Since Mas Fresco began in February 2017, it has enrolled 1,153 participants, who receive an average of $329 a month in food stamps and typically live in households of five or six people. Ninety percent of them are Latinos, but adults from any ethnic background can join provided they are willing to shop at a participating Northgate Gonzalez Market -- an Anaheim, Calif.-based Latino grocery chain that is Mas Fresco's retail partner.