Fair Food Network fights for healthy, sustainable eating

September 23, 2015
Source: The Michigan Daily
Author: Michael Flynn

One of the most well-documented and controversial aspects of the United States is its complicated relationship with food. Through years of unsustainable agricultural practices, the U.S. faces shortages of fresh food, particularly in impoverished communities. Combined with the prevalence of obesity, diet-related illness and reliance on government food assistance, the dearth of healthy, fresh food in these areas paints a bleak picture.

Emilie Engelhard, the communications director for the sustainable food startup Fair Food Network, sees the food dilemma more positively, as does the entire organization.

“Where others see problems, we see opportunities,” Engelhard said. “The work at hand is really about pioneering inspiring but practical solutions that don’t solve problems, but that look at the food system as a whole and … work on multiple parts of it simultaneously.”

Founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to healthy, fresh, sustainably grown food, Fair Food Network attempts to help underserved communities gain access to healthy food, help farmers earn more money and strengthen local economies.

“Part of what the work of this organization is building a more just and equitable food system that supports families in getting the most delicious and nutritious food possible while also insuring that farmers are earning a fair amount for their food,” Engelhard said.

To Engelhard, the work is incredibly fulfilling, both due to the broad scope of food’s influence in our lives and the competence of the organization.

“Food is something that connects all of us and it’s something that, when you’re working on the issue, you have the ability to talk about so many things, such as the foundation for a healthy society, stories about family and the ability to create a more fair system that supports everyone, both in terms of the health of our families, the health of our communities, local and regional economies, and our environment,” Engelhard said. “Food really fits some of the biggest challenges we face as a nation, and some of the biggest opportunities. It’s an honor to be a part of an organization that works in such a dynamic way to create a more just and equitable food system, and it’s also helping produce really powerful results for families and farmers.”

To achieve this goal, Fair Food Network tailors its efforts so that they can support the economy, farmers and consumers at the same time.

“We really think of this as the ‘win-win-win’ solution in terms of supporting farmers, economic development and also, most of all, the local population,” Engelhard said. “That’s where we really see the need right now: being able to practice multi-win solutions that help move the field forward faster, and that don’t just tackle one problem at a time.”

The company has achieved great success in this goal through several specific programs. Their Fair Food Funds program provides financial and business assistance to innovative sustainable food companies. Additionally, the company is part of the Michigan Good Food Fund, a loan and grant fund created to stimulate economic demand for locally grown food.

The most well known of these programs is called Double Up Food Bucks, a healthy food incentive program which attempts to create economic incentives for producing and consuming locally grown food. Established in 2009 in a farmers market in Detroit, Double Up Food Bucks gives low income U.S. citizens an opportunity to purchase fresh produce at a discounted price.

“How it works is that if you’re a family, or you’re someone who’s received Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, and you go to a participating site, and you spend $20 of your Nutrition Benefits at that site, you get a dollar-dollar match up to $20 a day to buy Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables,” Engelhard explained. “You can bring home $40 worth of healthy food for just $20.”

Fair Food Network puts an emphasis on producing and publicizing tangible results with its programs, and the results of Double Up Food Bucks have proven to be a success. Since 2009, families participating in Double Up Food Bucks have purchased 4 million pounds of healthy food using the program and SNAP benefits. According to surveys conducted by Fair Food Network, participants of the program have greater access to fruits and vegetables and, as a result, can decrease the amount of junk food they consume.

Farmers have also benefited from the program, with the year 2009 seeing a $7 million increase in SNAP and Double Up sales for farmers. 63 percent of farmers report making more money, and 50 percent report gaining a new customer base. Additionally, farmers are able to buy new equipment and plant a wider variety of crops with the money they have earned.

Since its formation in 2009, the program has expanded to more than 150 sites across the state of Michigan, and Fair Food Network intends to expand this program even more.

“We’re now helping partners in communities across the country to bring this proven model to their community,” Engelhard said. “There will be 239 Double Up markets in 13 states including Michigan. We’ve done a lot of work, translated the program into a toolkit and are now ready to provide technical assistance to partners to help them get up and running and leverage all the lessons learned.”

The success of this program is the paragon of one of Fair Food Network’s primary goals: to create programs that can create a tangible impact in one area of the country and replicate the program for use in other places. While their programs always begin at the local level, the company’s aspirations are to spread nationally.

As communications director for Fair Food Network, Engelhard is tasked with presenting the organization’s goals and utility to the public in an accessible way.

“The power of communication is really about storytelling,” Engelhard said. “What is the story of the work we do as an organization? Why is it important in the world today? And what are the results and evidence of the work that we’re doing? How I see my role, in a couple parts, is helping articulate that story and then communicate that story to both internal and external audiences. The other part of it is creating a lot of tools to support the organization in telling the story as well.”

Some tools at Engelhard’s disposal include social media channels and presentations. But perhaps the most powerful tool Engelhard uses to display Fair Food Network’s usefulness is the bounty of statistics that speak to the positive impact of the company’s programs such as Double Up Food Bucks.

By keeping detailed tabs on the economic impact of the Double Up Food Bucks program, Fair Food Network has gained leverage to influence public policy and has used that leverage to great effect. The success of Double Up Food Bucks led to a provision in the 2014 Farm Bill to supply the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program with $100 million, which will be used to fund similar programs — a massive financial gain for pioneers of sustainable food.

Additionally, Fair Food Network received a $5.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand Double Up Food Bucks’ operations. Over the next three years, the grant will be matched with private funds, which will amount to more than $10.4 million, which will be used to spread the program’s reach even further throughout Michigan farmer’s markets.

Cooperating with the government is one of the many ways that Fair Food Network uses collaboration as a means of reaching its goals.

“The success of this program is completely grounded in partnership,” Engelhard said. “Only by working together have we had the success that we have had. From local markets to meeting public, private and nonprofit organizations across the state, we really rely on the support of a diverse network of partners.”

Integral to the success of the Double Up Food Bucks program is Fair Food Network’s cooperation with SNAP-Ed agencies, organizations that provide information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. These agencies integrate information about Double Up Food Bucks into their social media campaigns, bringing more exposure to the program and to Fair Food Network as a whole.

Another important collaborator is the Michigan Farmers Market Association. Through extensive communication with this organization, Fair Food Network received clearance to implement their programs in farmers markets throughout the state of Michigan, and the two organizations have jointly increased the prevalence of government food assistance in the state of Michigan. In 2007, less than $16,000 in SNAP dollars were used at Michigan farmers markets, whereas in 2014, just under $1.6 million in SNAP dollars were used. Today, Michigan ranks third in the nation and first in the Midwest for the use of SNAP dollars in farmers markets, even though less than four percent of all SNAP users live in the state of Michigan. This disproportionate amount of Michigan SNAP users has Fair Food Network and its collaborators to thank for helping them attain access to fresh, sustainably grown food.

Fair Food Network does not claim to have invented the concept of the Healthy Food Incentive program, but does take credit for pioneering the idea of spreading such programs to the national level.

“What makes our program unique is that Double Up Food Bucks is the first statewide healthy food incentive program to employ that reformed design and centralize administration in a local implementation,” Engelhard said. “Fair Food Network has developed the program — we administered the program at a statewide level. You can also earn Double Up Food Bucks in Detroit and use them at another participating site. Fair Food Network pioneered the first uniformly designed, robust program and demonstrated that we can really work at that scale in a huge geography supporting rural, urban and suburban communities alike.”

Even considering everything the organization has done and the sheer scope of its operations, the Fair Food Network can’t take on this problem alone. To make sure the goal of a sustainable food system is met, ordinary people also have to do their part.

“Research shows that when most of us think about food, we tend to think about what’s going to be for dinner at night,” Engelhard said. “We think about the food in our fridge. Some of us think about where we’re going to be shopping. What’s really needed right now is for us to be thinking more dynamically about food as a system. The opportunity ahead of us is to envision food as a system and not just our individual experiences with food.”

“We cannot eat our way out of the challenges we face as a nation,” she continued with gravity. Hopefully, with the help of organizations such as Fair Food Network, we won’t have to.

First posted at Michigan Daily on September 17, 2015