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“Food bucks” help grow community health, economy
Nov 10, 2011 @ 10:17 AM by FFN with  comments
Author:Duane M. Elling
Source:Charles Stewart Mott Foundation
A brisk October weekend finds the vendor displays at the Flint Farmers’ Market groaning under the weight of crisp apples, brightly colored squash, fresh meats and cheeses, and other locally produced foods. Getting more of those nutritious, farm–fresh products to the tables of area low–income families and growing the economic health of local small farms are the goals behind Genesee County’s Double Up Food Bucks program.
Under the program, when market customers use a federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits card to shop with participating vendors, the amount they spend is matched – up to $20 per visit – with Double Up credits that they can use to buy more food at the market.
The innovative blend of anti–poverty and economic development strategies is a project of the Ann Arbor–based Fair Food Network, which promotes better access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low–income Michigan families.
Funding for the Genesee County program, including the Double Up match, is provided by a $150,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and by grants from the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint and the New York–based Open Society Foundations.
“Double Up is all about building equity and fairness in local food systems,” says network President Oran Hesterman.
“That means equitable access for everyone to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food; to good–paying jobs in the food industry; and to the land, water and means of production that smaller farms need to be in business.”
With support from the Kresge Foundation in Troy, Michigan, and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Hesterman piloted the Double Up model in 2009 at Eastern Market in Detroit. Interest in the program quickly blossomed.
The network, with support from the Open Society Foundations and more than 30 funders throughout Michigan, has since planted Double Up at 54 farmers’ markets across the state. Those programs have enrolled 35,000 SNAP recipients, who have spent more than $1 million in combined SNAP/Double Up benefits at participating markets.
The Genesee County program kicked off in August and has enrolled more than 2,500 participants, who have earned more than $52,000 in combined benefits for spending at the Flint Farmers’ Market.
In addition to increasing a family’s access to fresh food, the program frees more of their limited income for other critical needs, such as housing and transportation, says Market Manager Richard Ramsdell.
That’s important to Cindy Mraz, a Flint–area resident and Double Up participant. She can stretch her family budget while supporting the local economy.
“It’s going to help me and my family, but it’s also going to help the people at the Farmers’ Market,” she said. “Everybody wins.”
Emerging data bears this out at the market, where participating meat and poultry farmers reported a jump in sales of between 28 and 400 percent for September over the same period in 2010.
The program has clearly made a difference in the business of Rod Fowler, a vegetable farmer from nearby Swartz Creek. Within two weeks of joining the Double Up program, he saw “a phenomenal impact on our sales. We were leaving the market at the end of the day with empty trailers.”
Fowler also has witnessed the program’s positive effects on his customers.
“The people that we’re seeing using the program, we haven’t seen them at the market before,” he said. “And when they realize the extra food that they can buy, well, you should see their faces.”
The Genesee County program will wrap up by November 30 as many small farmers finish the fall harvest. It is expected to resume in the spring.
Flint program's innovative use of technology is model for others
While the Double Up Food Bucks program at the Flint Farmers’ Market has been under way for only a few months, it’s already making its mark in the field.
For example, Double Up customers at other participating farmers’ markets around Michigan receive their program credits in the form of metal tokens, which they redeem with market vendors. The Flint program, however, uses an electronic debit card, similar in appearance to a retail gift or rewards card.
Customers swipe the cards at transaction machines, which participating vendors lease for a small fee. The information is sent to a central database at the market, which automatically tallies the Double Up credits as they are earned and used.
To develop the required technology, Oran Hesterman, president of Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor, looked at firms as far away as California, but ultimately contracted with Epic Technology Solutions in downtown Flint.
Epic staff took just a few months to develop the debit card–based system, the first of its kind for a food–incentive program.
Hesterman says it is easy to use for both shoppers and vendors. It is discreet, yet tamper–resistant, and provides real–time reporting on the program. Such benefits will likely make the system highly attractive to other initiatives around the country, he said.
“I find it very exciting that it’s the innovative thinking right there in Flint, Michigan, that’s making this happen,” said Hesterman.
Originally posted on the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation website on November 8, 2011: read the original post here.
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