Strengthening Community Connections in Flint, Michigan

Since its launch over a decade ago in Flint, the Double Up Food Bucks program has been so popular that the city has become a centerpiece for program innovations. In 2014, in response to the Water Crisis, Fair Food Network expanded the foods eligible for earning Double Up in Flint, helping families bring home even more healthy food. Flint hosted our Cashier Engagement Pilot and introduced innovations to the point-of-sale system that are now used to seamlessly process Double Up transactions in locations across Michigan.

But despite Double Up’s historic impact in the city and its consistent presence as a community resource for more than a decade, Double Up usage in Flint — unlike in every other community where the program is available in Michigan — has declined in recent years. That means that at a time when Fair Food Network was making a concerted effort to increase program usage and reach more participants, Flint participants were using Double Up less.

In 2023, we launched a new community engagement strategy focused on gaining insight into this anomaly and seeking to learn more about how people were using Double Up in Flint. What we discovered from our conversations provided a lesson in the necessity of establishing and maintaining trust with program participants and making program adjustments informed by the unique needs of each community where we work. Leveraging our deep connection to the city of Flint, we spoke with local retailers, farmers, families, and evolve Double Up to meet Flint shoppers where they’re at.

Our Double Up team hosted a series of in-person events in 2023 to raise awareness, increase our presence in the community, and rebuild trust in the program. In addition, we expanded the visibility of the program by showing up more frequently in more places, including participating in promotions hosted by Women, Infants, & Children (WIC) and partnerships with Hurley Medical Center’s Food FARMacy, Flint Fresh Mobile Market, and the Crim Fitness Foundation. Program marketing materials better reflected the unique experience of Flint Double Up participants, with video and photography highlighting local shoppers, imagery, and stories; a radio ad featuring a local mother and son; and a “How Do You Double Up?” video sharing the unique ways Flint shoppers can use the program.

Feedback from shoppers and program staff also helped us to better reach Flint residents who use SNAP. To ensure shoppers had a positive experience with the program, we intensified our Double Up site visits and ran more cashier engagement events. Relaunching Double Up at a critical location where the program had recently been discontinued proved to be a boon to the surrounding neighborhood. And we put more targeted advertising in places frequented by SNAP shoppers, like buses and bus terminals. “A lot of shoppers rely on the bus system to get to and from Double Up locations,” said Program Ambassador Aaron Neeley. “The main bus terminal is right across from the Flint Farmers Market. So, the bus ads and radio ads were very effective and reached a lot of Double Up customers.”

In addition to ramping up outreach activities, we evolved the program to meet Flint participants’ specific needs, relying on feedback from farmers, retailers, and shoppers to guide how Double Up works in the city. Again and again, we heard from program participants that the $10/day earning limit — temporarily reduced from $20/day in response to overwhelming demand during the pandemic — was forcing Flint families to make some difficult choices. While our team was in town to attend Rep. Dan Kildee’s press conference on the farm bill, we observed one family returning fruit to the shelf so they could stay within their Double Up budget. Said one Flint shopper: “I rely on Double Up Food Bucks. The limit change really hurt me.”

Flint families spoke and we listened: In fall of 2023, upon receiving an essential infusion of funding for Double Up from both state and federal sources, Fair Food Network raised the daily earning limit to its previous maximum of $20. The return to the familiar daily earning limit, said Associate Director of Double Up Food Bucks Michigan, Cassidy Strome, was a significant factor in turning around the yearslong decline in Double Up usage in Flint, contributing to a 49 percent increase in program usage since September 2023.

In 2024, we continue to work to keep Flint program usage high. Lessons learned over the past three years in Flint have reinforced the importance of showing up in person more often; strengthening our connections and building new ones; working alongside community partners to turn feedback into action; and raisings the visibility of a program that will continue to play an outsized role in the lives of Flint families. To Flint Farmers Market Manager, Karianne Martus, it’s hard to overstate the impact that Double Up Food Bucks has had — and will continue to have — in Flint: “I truly cannot imagine our market or our community without it.”