We may not have figured out what to call the current economic crisis yet, but we all know how it feels: homes in foreclosure, insurmountable credit card debt, job insecurity and an unemployment rate that reached 9.5% in June. Our financial woes are the dead weight of a system gone amuck, and they don't just effect discretionary spending; these days, people find themselves cutting deeply into that most basic of needs–food.

Last week the Department of Agriculture, which collects data on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (better known as “food stamps”), released its findings stating that 33.8 million people, that's one out of every nine Americans, received food stamp assistance in the month of April, up almost 20 percent from the same time last year and an increase of 600,000 people since March. Fortunately for those who rely on food assistance, the Administration's stimulus package increased food stamp payments for families of four by about $80, an extra boost in the summertime when many eligible families find themselves without the help of free school breakfast and lunch programs. Last week the House passed a bill that would permanently increase spending on the food stamp program by 14 percent, though it remains to be seen if the additions make it through the Senate intact.

While talk about access to nutritious foods is a serious issue that warrants its own conversation, especially in lower income areas, many of Southern California's farmers' markets are equipped with the wireless scanners to accept the food-stamp program's electronic benefit cards (EBT). According to SEE-LA, the organization behind many area farmers' markets, including the famed Hollywood Farmers' Market at Selma and Ivar, there has been a significant increase in EBT sales this year, particularly at markets in lower income areas. When comparing EBT transaction data between January-June 2008 and January-June 2009, the Watts market showed an 84 percent increase, Echo Park a 98 percent increase, Lemon Grove a 106 percent increase, Leimert Park a 70% increase and the Central Avenue market saw a 97% increase in EBT sales.

While the data can be discouraging, it's also heartening. Not only does it show that more lower income people are taking advantage of the healthy food options available in their areas, but a Department of Agriculture study estimates that for every $5 of food stamp spending, there is a total of $9.20 of total economic activity. At a time where the effects of the stimulus are been questioned, this is a valuable indicator that investment at the bottom of the economy is worth its salt.

Leah Greenstein writes at SpicySaltySweet.com and is the co-author of the Food Blog Code of Ethics.

LA Weekly