As nutrition incentives for SNAP recipients expand, will local farmers still benefit?

January 6, 2020

Source: FoodPrint
Author: Lisa Elaine Held

Case Visser is a fifth-generation farmer in Zeeland, Michigan, where he and his family grow 200 varieties of produce — including staples like carrots, potatoes and onions — on a farm that has been in operation since 1902.

Visser estimates the farm generates three-quarters of its revenue selling fruits and vegetables at five Michigan farmers’ markets. Of that revenue, about a quarter comes from SNAP recipients: shoppers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that are double in value thanks to the Double Up Food Bucks program facilitated by Fair Food Network.

“It doesn’t seem like that’s that significant, but it’s a huge impact,” he says. “Not having it would definitely be devastating for us.”

SNAP Incentive Programs Are Growing

SNAP incentives are designed to enable low-income families to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables (and sometimes other healthy foods) at local markets. Visser’s experience is one example of how they can also increase revenue for local farmers and make markets more diverse, equitable spaces, thereby strengthening  local food systems.

During the past 10 years, SNAP incentive programs have spread out across the country. Double Up Food Bucks, first available at Detroit farmers’ markets in 2009, are now accepted at 850 sites in 27 states. In New York City, in 2018, over $456,000 in Health Bucks were distributed at 116 farmers’ markets in the form of SNAP incentives (that provide two extra dollars for every five spent). Since 2013, the Maryland Farmers Market Association (MDFMA) has distributed $900,000 in Maryland Market Money to food-insecure residents and is on track to hit $1 million in 2020.

Now, the Fair Food Network is working to expand the impact of SNAP incentives even more. In November, it received a $31 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in partnership with the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN) to create a national resource, currently being referred to as a “Nutrition Incentives Hub,” that will provide evaluation, training and technical assistance for organizations and agencies across the country that want to start or expand their own programs.

“[The Fair Food Network] is in a position where we’re wanting to support and elevate every opportunity to increase the consumption of healthy food and to really support and strengthen the purchasing power of families who use SNAP,” said Holly Parker, senior director of programs at Fair Food Network.

As SNAP incentive programs grow, there is also increased emphasis on expanding the use of the extra dollars beyond farmers’ markets to include supermarkets as well, which presents questions about whether the focus on supporting local, equitable food systems will also extend.

How SNAP Incentive Programs Work

Nutrition incentive programs that aim to increase the number of fresh fruits and vegetables low-income families eat are generally separated into two categories. There are produce prescriptions (where doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables during routine visits and those prescriptions generally come with a discount for purchasing), like those pioneered by Wholesome Wave. Then there are programs like Double Up, which are offered to SNAP recipients at farmers’ markets and provide a level of funds to increase or match government nutrition benefits spent on fresh produce.

Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park, Maryland was actually the first market to introduce the latter. Today, it’s one of 35 markets (out of 145 total) in the state that participated in MDFMA’s Maryland Market Money program in 2019.

Here’s how it works: Shoppers who come to the market to spend SNAP dollars (and other government benefits) are given dollar tokens to shop the market, and for every SNAP dollar token, they get an extra dollar, up to $5 per visit. In Michigan, the Double Up Food Bucks program works almost identically, except shoppers can get up to $20 in matching funds per visit.

What Are the Positive Impacts of SNAP Incentives?

When it comes to measuring impact, there are plenty of numbers available. In 2019, for example, as of mid-December, MFMA reported that “20,912 Marylanders spent $414,040 in federal nutrition benefits and Maryland Market Money matching dollars thus far with 416 local agricultural producers.”

But out of context, it’s difficult to parse how significant those numbers really are. Caitlin Misiaszek has been working on research (with two of the studies still in progress) on Maryland Market Money at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. She said that in general, farmers were enthusiastic about the benefits, but that the real financial impact was on the smaller side. “Quite a few of them said that yes, there is an economic benefit, but it’s not huge,” she said, adding that farmers also spoke to the positive social and community impacts of the program. On the shopper side, “a lot of the research does show customers who participate in these programs report an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption as a result,” she said, but it’s also important to note that almost all of the data is self-reported.

Another study published in February 2019 surveyed users of a SNAP incentive program in Bloomington, Indiana, called the Double Market Bucks Program. The results showed users of the program did purchase more produce at the farmers market, which would consequently increase farmers’ profits. And while it did not show the program attracted new shoppers to the market, some shoppers do say they attend markets more as a result.

In Flint, Michigan, Miroslava Mandujano started using Double Up Food Bucks after she found out one of her children had high lead levels. “Knowing what I know about the water crisis, I know that fruits and vegetables are a big part of lead mitigation,” she said. “It made me think about what I’m cooking for my kids.”

Mandujano said that before she knew about Double Up, it was rare for her to shop at a farmers’ market because the markets were further away and it was difficult to make the timing work. (The Bloomington study identified “transportation ease and geographic placement” as critical elements to attracting new SNAP recipients to markets.) “With the Double Up, knowing that there’s more I can do with those dollars, I do go to the farmers’ market more often than I would have,” she said.

Now, Mandujano is an “ambassador,” which means she spreads the word about the program in her community, and she said many of the questions that come into the hotline are about where people can use Double Up Food Bucks. Since the program expanded to supermarkets, she said, “We’re pretty good about getting people to the closest stores.”

Challenges to Running SNAP Incentive Programs

That speaks to the challenge of actually getting shoppers to farmers’ markets. Many don’t know the program exists, for example, until they get to a farmers’ market and see the booth.

Mandujano said people also sometimes know it exists but are confused about how to use the dollars, and she helps them understand exactly how it all works. This issue is compounded by the fact that new families are continuously qualifying for SNAP benefits or might have used them before, went off them, and come back on at a time when systems have changed. “In terms of outreach, it’s like reinventing the wheel every season,” said Juliet Glass at MDFMA, where the staff creates and distributes thousands of brochures and engages local community partners in getting the word out.

After getting people to the markets, market managers are then tasked with helping both shoppers and farmers understand systems and facilitate transactions. In one of the studies Misiaszek worked on with a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins, they interviewed 19 managers about implementation at various markets. “They identified barriers to implementation such as vendor buy-in and funding uncertainties…and opportunities for improvement such as strengthening promotion.”

Double Up Food Bucks at the Grocery Store

One way to overcome a few of those challenges is to meet SNAP recipients where most already shop: the grocery store. Double Up Food Bucks, for example, are now also accepted at 100 grocery stores in Michigan. In New York City, a new fully electronic dollar-for-dollar match program called Get the Good Stuff launched in three supermarkets in 2019, with daily matching up to $50 for not just fresh produce, but also frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (without added sugar, salt or fat) and canned and dried beans.

However, expansions in that direction could easily mean the benefit for local farmers and strong regional food systems would be lost.

Fair Food Network initially addressed this by mandating that shoppers at grocery stores were only able to purchase local produce. But when families reported that it was challenging for them to figure out which items were local and to find enough local produce at the stores, the organization switched course. Now, stores that accept Double Up Food Bucks are required to source a set percentage of their produce from Michigan farms. It was 18 percent in 2018, 19 percent in 2019, and will hit 20 percent in 2020.  “We’ve been really working with our retail partners and pushing them to slowly increase their procurement of local produce,” Parker said. “In the future, we’ll maintain the 20 percent requirement and we may start to work more directly with distributors to find other ways to elevate local Michigan farmers.”

Maryland Market Money is focused squarely on farmers’ markets but as other programs across the country follow Fair Food Network’s lead and expand their incentives to SNAP recipients purchasing produce at grocery stores, maintaining that focus on supporting and local farmers will be a challenge.

After all, as farmer Case Visser noted, SNAP benefits on their own can be used to buy food from anywhere. “The real incentive part of Double Up is that it’s only for Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. They [SNAP recipients] are able to spend on stuff that we grow, and it makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

And the relationship between farmer and shopper that evolves out of market attendance can have real value, too. “We’ve had people save up the Double Up Food Bucks to purchase fruit like strawberries and they came back to share the strawberry jam that they made out of it,” he said. “It really has been a life-changing thing for people who have never cooked with things that we grow.”

First published in FoodPrint on January 6, 2020.