Healthy Food for All: 2014 Farm Bill Creates National Healthy Food Incentive Grants

Author: Oran B. Hesterman
Source: Altarum Institute Health Policy Forum

After a 3-year battle in the U.S. House and Senate, the Agricultural Act of 2014 (Farm Bill) was passed on February 4, 2014, securing a bipartisan, 5-year piece of comprehensive legislation that provides a strong foundation for the food security of millions of American families, supports the livelihood of thousands of farmers, and creates a viable infrastructure for the development of sustainable local and regional food systems.

The new Farm Bill increases funding to improve access to healthy food by more than $500 million and creates a variety of programs that target the availability of healthy, culturally appropriate, fresh produce for low-income consumers in their own communities. For example, it includes $100 million to support the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants program (FINI), a new national healthy produce effort modeled after successful projects such as Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks (Double Up). Double Up doubles the spending power of low-income Americans using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to purchase nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables.

The Power of Incentives: Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks

Double Up Food Bucks is the first statewide healthy food incentive program with a uniform design. Since 2009, Double Up has grown from five farmers markets in Detroit to more than 150 sites across Michigan and 2 in northern Ohio. With its established design and centralized administration, the Double Up model supports a diverse range of communities at a low cost and a low administrative burden. The program is also distinguished by its comprehensive communications and strong partnerships, including with statewide agencies.

Fair Food Network’s experience at farmers markets was brought to grocery stores in 2013 through the Double Up Grocery Store Project in Detroit. This project was one of the first in the nation to provide healthy food incentives in this setting.

Double Up Food Bucks at Grocery Store

Fair Food Network’s 5-year track record and comprehensive evaluation show how healthy food incentives can meet the immediate food needs of low-income Americans for nutritious options, with the potential to support better health outcomes and long-term health care savings.

After the passage of the Farm Bill, Michigan Senator and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow commented, “It is very impressive what Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks program has accomplished in 5 short years. The work of Fair Food Network and its partners is a great example for the entire country. The Farm Bill expands the reach of such efforts.”

Double Up Food Bucks evaluation findings include the following:

  • Since 2009, SNAP customers have bought more than 3 million pounds of healthy food because of the program.
  • In all, 93% of participating SNAP customers report eating more fruits, vegetables; just as importantly, 89% report buying less low nutrition, high fat snacks.
  • In all, 93% of customers report that the selection, quality, and prices of produce were better at the farmers markets than where they usually shop. A majority of shoppers (80%) found it easy to get to their local farmers markets.
  • Double Up has stimulated a huge growth in SNAP use at farmers markets. By several measures, Michigan is among the top states in the nation for use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets.

Double Up’s findings were bolstered by a 2-year cluster evaluation of healthy food incentive programs from across the country. Led by Community Science, the study looked at incentive programs run by four organizations—Fair Food Network, Wholesome Wave, Market Umbrella, and Roots of Change/Ecology Center. It drew a sample from 131,000 SNAP customers using incentives to buy healthy food from nearly 5,000 farmers and vendors in 518 farmers markets in 24 states and the District of Columbia in 2012. It found that more than three-fourths of SNAP recipients reported that they have increased their purchases of produce because of the incentives. SNAP incentives were also a strong factor in their decision to shop at a farmers market.

Double Up Food Bucks at Farmers Market

Double Up Food Bucks Health Impact Evaluation

Fair Food Network is committed to providing a more in-depth health impact evaluation of this incentive program. We are partnering with the University of Michigan Department of Family Medicine and School of Public Health on an analysis of who is using the Double Up Food Bucks program, effects on participants’ diets, and potential associated health impacts. The evaluation is being led by Dr. Alicia Cohen, a family physician and researcher. Using mixed qualitative and quantitative research methods, the study includes surveys, focus groups, and analysis of more than 22,000 Double Up transactions from seven Detroit farmers markets during the 2012 and 2013 market seasons linked with de-identified sociodemographic data.

This approach will allow us to

  • Evaluate individual-level purchasing patterns and sociodemographics associated with patterns of utilization;
  • Determine how the population of Detroit SNAP recipients using Double Up compares sociodemographically with those SNAP recipients not currently using Double Up;
  • Evaluate effects of Double Up on fruit and vegetable purchase and consumption; and
  • Better understand barriers to and facilitators of produce purchase, consumption, and program utilization.

We are currently developing a community-informed, clinic-based intervention to assess utilization of Double Up among families at a primary care clinic in Detroit to further the in-depth evaluation of the program.

2014 Farm Bill Helps Scale Incentives with the FINI Grants Program

Modeled after efforts such as Double Up, the new FINI grants program aims to increase access to affordable fruits and vegetables. FINI will establish “incentive grants” for projects that encourage SNAP participants to purchase nutritious fruits and vegetables. It provides $100 million in mandatory funding over the course of 5 years and limits federal cost share to 50%.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing hard to get the Request for Proposal out by late summer and will provide $35 million in grants to support SNAP fruit and vegetable incentive programs in the 2015 produce season. A variety of groups are eligible for the federal funds: nonprofit organizations, farmers market associations, health and public agencies, tribal agencies, economic development groups, and grocery or corner stores.

According to the provision in the Farm Bill, priority will be given to direct marketing projects and locally sourced produce in conventional retail stores, projects located in low-income communities, and those that maximize the amount of funds spent on incentives. Applicants must provide a 1:1 match for each federal dollar, have the support of the state’s SNAP agency, increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by participants, participate in independent program evaluation, and use effective technologies that can be replicated.

Fair Food Network is looking forward to applying for FINI funding to support our Double Up Food Bucks work in farmers markets and grocery stores in Michigan and to help bring the Double Up model to other interested communities. We have seen the power of healthy food incentives in our communities where every federal dollar spent does at least double duty, providing a dollar in real nutrition assistance and a dollar in new farm sales.

The result? A ripple effect of benefits that keeps food dollars circulating in local economies and has the potential to support the health and well-being of the whole communities.

Double Up Food Bucks Poster

Fair Food Network’s Double Up season kicked off this past week. We look forward to another great year supporting Michigan families and farmers. For more insights on the Farm Bill, you can check out a six-part series on our blog that details what is in the bill for regional food systems, organic farming, new farmers, and more.

First posted at Altarum Institute Health Policy Forum on June 24, 2014.