Food Hero: Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks Program

October 8, 2013
Source: FoodTank
Author: Sarah DeWitt

The Double Up Food Bucks program is helping beneficiaries of public food aid programs gain access to fresh, nutritious produce at their local farmers markets. The initiative offers grant funding for Michigan farmers markets to double the purchasing power for customers using federal food assistance dollars at their local farmers market. Double Up Food Bucks is operated by the Fair Food Network, a Michigan-based, national non-profit dedicated to creating wider access to fair, healthy, and fresh food.

In addition to making farmers market produce more accessible to low-income households, Double Up Food Bucks has expanded its promotion of fresh, local fruits and vegetables to Detroit area grocery stores. (Fair Food Network)

The process for using public food aid to buy fresh produce is simple: Head to the neighborhood farmers market, exchange money from a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits card for market currency, and receive matching funds of up to US$20 per day to spend on fresh produce at the market.

Rachel Chadderdon Bair serves as the Program Director of Double Up Food Bucks. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Bair on the program’s successes, the positive influence of food assistance on healthcare costs and economic growth, and bipartisan support for healthy food incentive programs.

Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks program has been providing increased access to local, healthy, fresh produce in Michigan for four years now. What lessons have been learned as the program has evolved? What are the goals for the program in the next four years?

In just four years, we at Fair Food Network have grown Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) from five urban markets in Detroit to over 150 farmers markets, farm stands, and other food outlets across the state. This year we’ve also started to move into more mainstream venues with our Detroit Grocery Store Pilot.

Our biggest [lesson] is that regardless of the setting—urban or rural, small or large—incentives work. Consistently, at least 80 percent of program participants tell us they're eating more fruits and vegetables because of DUFB. It’s also a win for farmers and the economy: 80 percent say they’re selling more produce and making more money as a result of DUFB, injecting more money into the local economy.

In the next few years, we will deepen our roots in Michigan and scale [up] this program nationally. We developed DUFB to work anywhere; it’s time to expand its reach beyond state lines. We’re also testing new technologies to replace the tokens typically used at farmers markets, which is another exciting new development in incentives programs.

In July 2012, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC) published a policy report, “SNAP to Health: A Fresh Approach to Improving Nutrition in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” Recommendations in the report included the implementation of strategies to incentivize the purchase of healthier food options and to align SNAP Purchases with 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. What is Fair Food Network's position on changing or maintaining the current list of eligible food items for purchase with SNAP benefits?

Conventional wisdom says you need a carrot and a stick to change behavior, meaning you need both incentives and disincentives. What we’ve shown with DUFB is that you just need a better tasting and more affordable carrot. DUFB proves that incentives are a powerful lever with big returns for the well-being of our community and the vitality of our economy.

Double Up Food Bucks offers Michigan's low-income residents concrete, immediate access to healthy, local fruits and vegetables. What role, if any, do Double Up Food Bucks and programs like it play in the long-term alleviation of hunger and poverty in the United States?

DUFB and similar incentive programs can be game-changers.

Here’s how: SNAP accounts for the largest government expenditure in our food and agriculture system. DUFB leverages those federal dollars to meet families’ immediate food needs with fresh, healthy food. But it doesn’t stop there. It also supports area farmers and keeps money in the local economy, which in turn creates jobs and spurs economic activity.

In this way, food stamps are not only a way to assist vulnerable families in the here and now, they are also a powerful tool for long-term healthcare savings and an engine for economic development and revitalization.

You can check out an infographic from a study we commissioned with economist Michael Shuman that breaks down how local foods can grow local economies. Jeffrey O’Hara of the Union of Concerned Scientists also published an excellent report that shows how modest public funding for 100 to 500 otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period. We need more research in this area to document the economic potential of localizing our food system.

This year, the Double Up Food Bucks program expanded into multiple grocery stores in Detroit. What have been the most challenging and successful parts of this process for the many stakeholders (Fair Food Network staff, grocery staff, customers, local community members and others) involved?

Grocery stores are where the majority of Americans buy their food. Until this pilot project in Detroit, they have been the uncracked nut of incentive programs such as DUFB.

And while there’s some differences in implementing DUFB in farmers markets versus grocery stores, incentives for fresh, locally-grown produce work in both! We’re also seeing an exciting ripple effect: new families are being reached, stores are working with their suppliers to provide and promote more state-grown produce, and farmers are expanding into new wholesale markets.

We’re thrilled to roll out this first-in-the-nation pilot in partnership with three terrific Detroit grocery stores—Metro Foodland, Mike's Fresh Market, and Honeybee Market. They deserve a ton of credit for their flexibility, innovation, and willingness to break new ground with us. It speaks to the incredible entrepreneurship coming out of the good food movement in Detroit.

While much work still needs to be done to refine this model, it’s a great start. Stay tuned for pilot results later this fall at fairfoodnetwork.org.

Fair Food Network informs the national debate on food issues, including the potential for federal support in the Farm Bill for programs such as Double Up Food Bucks. What seem to be the biggest barriers to increasing local, healthy food access through legislation and policy? What seem to be the most promising avenues for securing support for these efforts?

Incentives have actually provided rare common ground for Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, language funding programs such as DUFB has been included in every farm and nutrition bill passed by both houses of Congress in 2012 and 2013. In September, Rep Dan Kildee (D-MI) even introduced a stand-alone bill—the "Local Food for Healthy Families Act"— which calls for funds to support incentives at farmers' markets. We’re also lucky to have the intrepid leadership of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) at the helm, who’s been a great champion for passing a Farm Bill that works. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) included support for DUFB-like incentives in her comprehensive Let's Grow Act, and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) also endorsed it in her Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013.

Our hope is to scale up what’s working here in Michigan across the country, and public policy can play a key role supporting this. In the meantime, we’re not slowing down, we’ve only just begun.

First published at FoodTank on October 5, 2013.