Double UP the Opportunities

August 19, 2014

Source: Produce Retailer
Author: Pamela Riemenschneider

DETROIT — Smiles. That's what I see when I talk to people about Double Up Food Bucks.

From the grower at the historic Eastern Market packing up bags of local strawberries, to the shopper with the fruits and vegetables he purchased using his Double Up tokens, to the single-store operator who is joining as part of a SpartanNash pilot this year, everyone is optimistic about the opportunities presented by the program, which matches Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program purchases at participating sites with funds to purchase Michigan-grown produce.

Double Up Food Bucks celebrates its fifth anniversary this year by expanding its work in grocery — an area that will help it achieve a broader reach beyond farmers markets and food stands. The program started out privately funded, but now there are new opportunities through the 2014 Farm Bill’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives grant program to expand with federal funding.

The Double Up Food Bucks program is available at farmers markets across Michigan, and trialed at a few independent stores last year. A SpartanNash pilot this year hopes to solve some point-of-purchase programs to move the program to a larger scale. Photo – Pamela Riemenshcneider.

“Retail was always part of the plan,” says Rachel Bair, Double Up Food Bucks program director. “The original grant proposals started in the farmers market, which was a great place to start, and then moved into retail.”

While the process is relatively simple at the farmers market, there are significant challenges in a retail environment.

“The main challenge, and it is a very real challenge,” Bair says, “is to figure out how to deliver the incentive in a way that is secure and can handle the volume.”

Farmers markets, she says, use a token system where a customer swipes their EBT card to get tokens that are matched with Double Up Food Bucks tokens for purchasing Michigan-grown produce. Vendors at the farmers market turn in their tokens for reimbursement at a central location.

“It’s really simple and works in all different sizes and types of markets, but that does not work in a grocery setting,” Bair says.

Last year, the program piloted in three Detroit-area independent grocers using gift cards for produce purchases. That program worked, Bair says, but would not be feasible at a larger scale.

“We’ve tried a few different avenues and are limited by the off-the-shelf point-of-sale systems that independent stores use,” she says. “When everything is well-labeled and well-marked in the produce department, it’s possible for the cashier to identify produce, but it’s ultimately up to the cashier to police the system. It works best when a store carries only Michigan-grown items in certain categories.”

Enter SpartanNash

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash is stepping up to help solve the in-store implementation problem with a pilot of its own. The company chose three stores to offer the Double Up Food Bucks program this year, says Brian Haaraoja, vice president of fresh merchandising. SpartanNash’s pilot runs Aug. 1 through Nov. 30.

“For SpartanNash, we will be able to drive more value to our SNAP customers and hopefully increase produce sales,” Haaraoja says. “We’re also excited to support our local Michigan produce growers sell more of their products in our stores.”

SpartanNash plans to use its YES loyalty card to executive the transactions at point of sale, he says.

“The SpartanNash IT team is finalizing the software upgrades needed to ensure the transaction is rung up correctly at the register and that the reporting of the transactions is acceptable for the USDA,” he says.

SpartanNash chose three stores, one in Battle Creek, one in Grand Rapids, and one in Detroit for its pilot.

“All three of these stores have a high concentration of EBT customers living and shopping in the trade area,” he says.

Boots on the ground

For Parkway Foods, which recently remodeled and reopened a former Farmer Jack store on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, the program hopefully will help drive produce sales and traffic to the store, says store manager Vince Nona.

The family-operated store has been in Detroit for more than four decades, and moving to the larger, 47,000-square-foot location is a big undertaking, Nona says. Parkway Foods redesigned the store and produce is featured prominently.

“We’re optimistic about the opportunity get more fruits and vegetables for our customers,” Nona says. “This new store is the anchor in a development we hope will revitalize this community.”

Nona says Parkway Foods already is talking with suppliers about stocking more Michigan-grown produce.

The Fair Food Network, which administrates the Double Up Food Bucks program, has staff to help farmers markets and grocers educate consumers on optimizing their produce purchases.

They also plan to do an extensive campaign in print advertisements, billboards and social media, as well as in-store demonstrations to help consumers make the most of their food dollars, says Emilie Engelhard, communications director.

And the outreach doesn’t stop with Michigan, Engelhard says. Thanks to federal funding through the Farm Bill, healthy food incentive programs are cropping up in other areas of the country as well.

The Fair Food Network offers toolkits for farmers markets to implement their own systems similar to Double Up Food Bucks.

“Everyone is just now becoming aware of what’s involved with the healthy food incentives,” she says. “We have to figure out the retail equation.”

First posted at Produce Retailer on August 5, 2014.