Fair Food Network Offers Fresh Take On Healthy Eating

November 5, 2012

Source: Michigan Chronicle
Author: Minehaha Forman

In a city where liquor stores often double as grocery stores, fresh, affordable produce is often hard to come by for Detroit residents. This is especially true for low-income households that receive food assistance and have to stretch a set monthly food allowance.

But there’s good news for Detroiters on food assistance looking to eat healthier and still save money. The Fair Food Network, a nonprofit organization founded on the belief that everyone should have access to fresh, sustainably grown food, is working to boost healthy eating patterns though fresh food incentives.

The Fair Food Network’s Double Up food Bucks (DUFB) program offers a large inventive to get people to buy local, fresh produce and make healthier, affordable choices for their families.

Any person on the State’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can double their food tokens at most Michigan farmers markets including Eastern Market at no extra charge to their bridge card. The DUFB program allows SNAP shoppers who spend $20 at farmers markets to get up to $20 extra in market tokens that can only be spent on fresh, Michigan grown produce.

DUFB works not only to provide low-income families with fresh fruits and vegetables, but it also is an incentive that greatly benefits Michigan farmers and the economy.

The offer is a win-win situation according to Rachel Chadderdon Bair, director of the DUFB program. “We have lots of great feedback from customers. People are very excited about the program,” she said. “There’s been a huge increase in food assistance customers at market.”

It’s not just the customers that benefit from doubling their food dollars at farmer’s markets, she said, but local farmers earn more as well.

“It absolutely affects the economy. Every Double Up Food Buck is an extra dollar going to a Michigan famer. The farmers are very positive and excited about the program,” Chadderdon Bair said.

Since it began as a Detroit pilot program in 2009, DUFB, which is funded through a collection of private companies and organizations, has seen rapid growth.  In the first two years the program distributed more than $700,000 additional dollars to SNAP recipients who shop at farmers markets and buy Michigan produce. That’s not counting 2012 numbers.

“Since the beginning, over $3 million in food assistance and Double Up food comps have been spent with local growers and food producers,” Chadderdon Bair said, adding that a formal economic analysis is in the works.

The DUFB program started in Detroit and has expanded to serve more than 75 market sites throughout the state. DUFB is the only statewide food assistance incentive program in the county.

How does it work? When a SNAP recipient gets tokens from their Bridge Card at a participating farmer’s market, those tokens are matched—no strings—for up to $20 dollars. That way a $20 grocery shopping trip to the market turns into a $40 one without having to spend any extra money from your Bridge Card.

But DUFB isn’t the only program provided through the Fair Food Network. In fact, the nonprofit’s mission to work with local groups to remedy problems within the local food system is served through many different approaches.

One Fair Food Network program, Strengthening Detroit Voices, serves as a connector between resources the organization provides and active groups within the city.

“We want to make sure that local legislators, churches and community groups are aware of our programs,” said Terrance Hicks, project manager of the Strengthening Detroit Voices and Detroit Grocery Incubator programs. “We want to cast a wider net so a larger section of the community has the opportunity to work with the Fair Food Network as a resource.”

The Grocery Store Incubator is a Fair Food Network pilot program that Hicks also works closely with. The three-phase program lasts 12 weeks during which fellows who participate get specialized training on how to run a successful city grocery store catering to the unique demands of an urban landscape. The idea is that with more training and expertise among food-related entrepreneurs, Detroit can escape its reputation as a food desert and offer more affordable, healthy food not provided at liquor stores.

“This is a pilot,” Hicks said. “Right now the fellows who graduated are working on a food industry niche in Detroit that is not necessarily grocery a store.”

Another program the Fair Food Network plans to test out is an extension of DUFB into existing local grocery stores in addition to farmer’s markets.  Next June, the Double Up Food Bucks incentive will be available at three Detroit grocery stores. The stores have not been announced yet, but one will be on the East side of Detroit, one in Southwest and one in the Northwest portion of the city.

The Fair Food Network was born after the Fair Food Foundation, a non-profit arm of Bernie Madoff’s investment management firm, lost funding due to legal troubles with its parenting company.

Six months later, Oran Hesterman, who served as the Fair Food Foundation’s President and CEO, resurrected the organization into a national, independent nonprofit and called it the Fair Food Network.

One thing Fair Food Network Program Director Meredith Freeman wants people to know is that it’s a collaborative effort that has made the organization successful in its mission to provide access healthy food.

“It’s worthy to know that there are so many players in Detroit that are collaborating and actually making some headway,” Freeman said. “We know each other, we trust each other and we really support each others talents and efforts. That’s really important.”

Freeman noted that the Fair Food Network works with in close partnership with many projects in the city including The Greening of Detroit, The Detroit Black Food Security Network, Gleaners Food Bank, The Eastern Market Association, Detroit Public Schools and many more.

While the notion that Detroit is considered a food desert is controversial, Freeman said there’s a reason Detroiters flock to major food chains in the suburbs.

“It’s not just the number of grocery stores but what kind of grocery shopping and how people feel inside the stores,” Freeman said.

The number of grocery stores in the city is not a fair measure of Detroit’s food access according to Freeman. It’s the quality of the food sold and the retail experience that counts.  “Are the grocery stores clean? Do they offer variety? Is there a welcoming feel?” These are the questions that were asked in a recent Detroit grocery store survey, she said.

“There may be 80 independent grocery stores in Detroit but there are not 80 stores that people want to shop at,” Freeman said. “We have a food retail leakage. Millions of dollars leave the city [to find] fresh, affordable food.”

Originally published at the Michigan Chronicle on October 29, 2012.