Food aid program aims to offer double helpings of fresh produce

June 17, 2013
Source: Detroit Free Press
Author: Todd Spangler

WASHINGTON — Adding a few Detroit grocers to the dozens of farmers markets that double the amount food stamp recipients can spend on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables may seem like small potatoes, but some local advocates believe it could be the leading edge of a new effort in the fresh food movement.

Until now, efforts in the U.S. to get more locally grown produce to people on food stamps have focused on farmers markets. But Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks program is hoping to show success operating in three Detroit groceries, which could further help growers while getting fresh fruits and vegetables to people who often can’t afford them.

“This will be the first time an incentive program like this has been done at a grocery store anywhere,” said Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of the Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor, which runs Double Up Food Bucks. “This is not just a little boutique one-off program; this is a program we’re demonstrating can happen in any community.”

Hesterman’s announcement today at the Clinton Global Initiative’s meeting in Chicago comes at an auspicious moment for these programs, which studies show help farmers sell more and low-income families buy more locally grown produce. The U.S. Senate this week passed a Farm Bill with $100-million in matching funds to aid such efforts.

“Traditionally, it’s more expensive to buy some strawberries or blueberries, or a head of lettuce, than a bag of potato chips,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. As chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, she is trying to keep House negotiators from downsizing the amount of aid for double-value produce programs.

As the number of farmers markets across the U.S. has exploded — from 1,715 in 1994 to 7,864 last year — so have the number of programs to increase the purchasing power of families who receive food stamp benefits under what’s now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

 

Andre J Jackson

A farmers market customer gets a free sample of pea shoots from Rising Pheasant Farms. The Double Up Food Bucks program gives people up to $20 to buy locally grown food. / Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press

 

Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group that works with double-value incentive programs, including Double Up Food Bucks, said its partners include programs at nearly 400 markets in more than two dozen states and Washington, D.C. Wholesome Wave Executive Vice President of Policy Gus Schumacher said thousands of farmers are reporting increased sales as well.

“Basically, farmers are getting more revenue by providing healthy local food,” Schumacher said.

Michigan’s program, however, is one of the few statewide efforts, with most others limited to single communities. That means Double Up Food Bucks can advertise and attract customers from Detroit’s Eastern Market to farmers markets in the Upper Peninsula. About 100 markets will participate when the season starts July 1 — up from 75 last year.

Here’s an example of how it works: A family goes to a place like Eastern Market and informs welcome center workers they intend to spend $20 on eligible products. They get $20 worth of wooden tokens once their Bridge Card — with the monthly allotment of SNAP benefits — is debited for that amount. But they also get 10 Double Up Food Bucks, each worth $2, to spend specifically on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables.

The maximum match is $20 a day. The Double Up Food Bucks are good for the whole season.

The program at the three groceries — Metro Foodland on Grand River, Mike’s Fresh Market on Gratiot and Honey Bee Market on Bagley — is a bit different. SNAP beneficiaries who purchase at least $10 worth of fruits and vegetables (grown anywhere) will be handed a $10 gift card to spend on Michigan-grown fruits or vegetables in the future. It should provide a good test of how it will work in grocery stores, where the stocking and technical practices could be more complicated than at a farmers market.

“It’s small in numbers, but it’s big in potential impact down the road,” said Hesterman, whose group had to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture even to try it in a grocery store.

Fair Food Network also is working on other technical advances it hopes will make the process easier for vendors everywhere — like using mobile phone technology to redeem Double Up Food Bucks. The program, with a budget of $1.8-million last year, is largely paid for by dozens of supporters, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation and Whole Foods markets.

Farmers, including Carolyn Leadley — whose family raises produce at Rising Pheasant Farms on about a fifth of an acre on Detroit’s east side — say Double Up Food Bucks have made a difference. Leadley said she has been able to sell more diverse, expensive products — like the sunflower shoots she grows in a room of her home — to “customers we might not be able to reach otherwise.”

Mark Kaltz at N.W. Kaltz & Sons Farms in St. Clair County said Double Up Food Bucks hasn’t led to larger sales, and workers have to spend a lot of time explaining the rules to customers. But a recent study done by the Fair Food Network showed 92% of participating farmers said they were selling more.

Michigan — with its statewide program — had $1.5 million in SNAP redemptions at farmers markets last year, more than seven times that any other state in the Midwest.

“It’s a fantastic benefit,” said Pam Weinstein, market master at the Northwest Detroit Farmers’ Market. “It plays a tremendous role in allowing people to get more fruits and vegetables into their diets and it really helps the vendors.”

Double Up Food Bucks coincides with Michigan’s growing season and ends Oct. 31.

Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or at tspangler@freepress.com. First published at Detroit Free Press on June 14, 2013.