On a gray Saturday morning, vendors carry crates of produce, shake out tablecloths and prop up tents for the City Heights Farmers Market.

Here, people can use food stamps to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and stretch their benefits further than in the store. By spending at least $5 at the market, they can receive $5 in tokens, sponsored by nonprofits, to buy more produce.

Wearing a leather jacket and overalls, Lorrie Scott runs from tent to tent checking on farmers and vendors. Scott’s farm in Valley Center burned down in the 2007 wildfires. Now she manages several of the county’s farmers markets that accept food stamps. The program is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and participants spend benefits loaded on an electronic debit card.

San Diego County enrolled 35 percent of eligible people in food stamps in 2007, according to a national anti-hunger group. Despite growth in the program in recent months, the county’s low participation rate leaves a clear opportunity, Scott said.

If the county enrolls more people in the program, farmers at the market could sell more, she said, earning more money to grow their businesses and keep prices steady. The same boosts might apply for local grocers and small business owners.

Eli Hofshi, a farmer at the City Heights market who sells lettuce, radishes, cabbage and daikon, said customers pay with food stamps for about one-quarter of his sales.

“There’s no better way to help farmers,” Scott said. “It just opens a whole — another avenue of revenue.”

We’ve been publishing a special report this week on the wide gaps in the county’s social services safety net. San Diego’s low participation in social welfare programs impacts the wider economy, as well.

Local business owners generally aren’t aware that the region’s low participation in food stamps hurts them, said Michelle Zive, who heads a nonprofit nutrition advocacy group.

“I can’t assume why they should care but I can ask a business owner to come to the table and educate them and say, ‘Did you know you were losing money?’” Zive said.

The county left nearly $110 million in state and federal funds on the table because of its low participation rate in 2007, according to a report from the Food Research and Action Center. Every $5 a food stamp recipient receives translates to $9.20 spent in the local economy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

“This is money that could be boosting San Diego’s economy, whether it’s you that needs the help or your neighbor,” said Ellen Vollinger, FRAC’s legal director. “This isn’t a time when we can afford to operate like that.”

— KELLY BENNETT and DAGNY SALAS

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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