Fair Food Network: Alleviating Hunger One Apple at a Time

Author: Oran B. Hesterman
Source: Open Society Foundations Blog

In a city like Detroit finding healthy, fresh, and locally grown produce is very difficult. Most Detroit residents rely on neighborhood convenience stores and gas stations for their grocery shopping. That’s why Marlyn Minus, an inner-city single mother with nine daughters, is excited to participate in Fair Food Network’s (FFN) Double Up Food Bucks Program (DUFB). We developed DUFB as an strategy to encourage low-income consumers to spend their federal food assistance (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) on fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets across the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, improving access to healthy and affordable food.

Marlyn arrives at the thriving Detroit Eastern Market midmorning on Saturday with all her children in tow and moves from vendor to vendor exploring the wide variety of sweet smelling fruits and vegetables, mindful to purchase her produce only from Michigan farmers where she can use her DUFB tokens: “With Double Up Food Bucks I can try different fruits and vegetables and have more healthy food for my children than I ever could feed them before. My children can’t wait to get home and taste these apples and strawberries.” Marlyn completes her purchase of fresh fruit from Mel Holtz, farmer at the Holtz Family Farm in Ida, Michigan 60 miles from downtown Detroit, and loads her children with small bags of this fragrant produce fresh picked that morning.

Mel is also grateful for the DUFB program that provides added resources for him and his family and enables him to increase his income and expand his already extensive offering of produce at the market where his family has been selling their crops since 1968. DUFB uses funds raised from foundations to “match” purchases at farmers’ markets in Michigan: when customers use their SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, they receive an equal amount of tokens, up to $20 per visit, to spend at the market to purchase fresh Michigan-grown produce.

That same afternoon at Detroit’s Eastern Market,  I noticed a young man I had seen earlier at the Welcome Center with a toddler. He recognized me as one of the project leaders who had described the program to those waiting in line. When he saw me, he put down his bags, which were overflowing with fresh vegetables, took my hand and thanked me for giving him the opportunity to bring home so much fresh and healthy food for his family. He told me that for the very first time, he was thinking about where his food came from and who was growing it. The signage was evident, but it was the first time he had paid attention to it.

Fair Food Network’s DUFB demonstration project, based in Michigan and involving tens of thousands of people, has shown that monetary incentives simultaneously encourage healthier food choices for low-income families and strengthen the local economy. In 2010, FFN received support for DUFB from the Open Society Foundations’ Special Fund for Poverty Alleviation and was able to raise more than the required matching funds to run this three-year project. Ultimately, it is hoped that this program, together with policy advocacy efforts, will result in a shift in food assistance policy to provide incentives for families with SNAP benefits to purchase fresh produce.

Rapid Statewide Expansion of Double Up Food Bucks Program

From a small pilot program in Detroit in 2009, DUFB has grown to serve communities across Michigan and will be in 75 farmers’ markets this summer. It is supported by a sophisticated marketing campaign that reaches key constituencies by means of many different communications channels, including direct mailings, radio ads, billboards, and a website.

There were more than 40,00 DUFB customer visits to these markets in 2011, and 25% of these were first-time farmers’ market visitors who form an entirely new cadre of shoppers at the markets and supporters of the local food economy, shoppers like Marlyn Minus and her family.

Another new shopper at farmers’ markets is Wendy Essenberg, a single mom from the Grand Rapids area. She wrote us a message at Fair Food Network to communicate her appreciation for the DUFB program:

“I don’t know if this will get to the right people but I just want to say thank you! Thank you so much for this double up program. I am a newly single mom and have been struggling along since the divorce. I am working hard, have gone to school and am still looking for a job. I have had so much fun taking my girls to the market with me this summer to let them pick out fruits and veggies. I have been teaching them how to steam and sauté. I showed them how to make freezer jam. I taught them how to freeze fruits and veggies so that we can enjoy them in the winter.”

DUFB is undoubtedly one reason why in 2011, SNAP redemptions at farmers’ markets in Michigan were greater than in any other Midwestern state by a significant factor.

Evaluation Results of Double Up Food Bucks Program

A careful evaluation of the DUFB incentive program was undertaken by Fair Food Network to assess its effectiveness, provide solid data to assist FFN in moving forward, and provide a replicable model for implementation nationwide. Farmers, consumers, and market managers overwhelmingly expressed their support:

  • 96% of customers said they would participate in DUFB again and would like it to expand to more venues;
  • 81% of customers reported that because of DUFB, they increased the amount of fruits and vegetables they buy;
  • 66% of customers make more trips to the farmers’ market;
  • 58% of consumers tried different kinds of fruits and vegetables;
  • 100% of farmers’ market managers would participate in DUFB again;
  • 95% of farmers report a positive experience with the program;
  • 75% of farmers say they make more money at the farmers’ markets with DUFB, and 80% report selling more fruits and vegetables.

Double Up Food Bucks Program and the Farm Bill

DUFB has demonstrated the feasibility and effectiveness of using incentives to encourage low-income families to purchase healthier food and support the local food economy and farmers, and the DUFB program is being recognized at the highest policy-making levels. For example, USDA Food & Nutrition Service Administrator Audrey Rowe, visited Fair Food Network at the beginning of April to present Fair Food Network with a USDA Certificate of Appreciation that reads, “For your efforts in supporting farmers markets and ensuring access to fresh, healthy and local food for SNAP recipients and all Americans.”

Because of our success, we have also been asked to consider replicating our project in other high-need communities outside of Michigan (Newark, NJ and Jacksonville, FL to date) in addition to leading the policy work that would create a flow of public funds to match future philanthropic support. FFN is now partnering with three other organizations to gather data from a number of incentive programs nationwide.

Our goal is to transform federal food assistance into an investment in our future, one that would result in the improved health of our low-income citizens, decreased poverty, increased earnings for our farmers, and a stronger and more vibrant economy on the local and national level.

Originally posted at the Open Society Blog.