Healthy Food Just Got a Big Boost in the New Farm Bill

January 23, 2019

Source: Yes Magazine
Author: Fran Korten

Fresh fruits and vegetables just got a whole lot more affordable for people who use SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps. The 2018 Farm Bill passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law Dec. 20 by President Trump—although SNAP’s funding beyond February depends on Congress and the president enacting a new budget and ending the government shutdown. If that happens, the new law allocates $250 million over five years to healthy food incentive programs, such as Double Up Food Bucks.

According to Oran Hesterman of the nonprofit Fair Food Network, which launched the Double Up program in five Detroit farmers markets in 2009, the simplicity and benefits of the program have helped it spread rapidly. It works like this: When someone spends SNAP money on fruits and vegetables, the program matches the purchase, so $10 of SNAP money buys $20 worth of fresh produce. The buyer, farmers, and local economy all benefit.

The program had a breakthrough in the 2014 Farm Bill, which allocated $100 million for healthy food incentive programs. Those programs can now be found nationwide, with the Double Up model in place in 26 states.

Hesterman has been a major force guiding the growth of these programs. In 2009, he left his job as a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to found the Fair Food Network and has served as its chief executive ever since.

Fran Korten: You have been an advocate of the Double Up Food Bucks program for almost a decade. How did you start up the program?

Oran Hesterman: When I left the Kellogg Foundation and started Fair Food Network in 2009, I thought to myself, What is the best program we can put on the ground to demonstrate how the food system can operate in a way that can generate multiple wins? Rather than solving one specific problem, let’s see if we can demonstrate how to address several issues at once.

Korten: So how did you come up with the idea of the Double Up program?

Hesterman: When I was at the Kellogg Foundation, we partnered with the Ford Foundation on a small grant to try to get farmers markets into more low-income neighborhoods. We knew that if you’re going to attract farmers to these neighborhoods, you have to figure out how to get the shoppers of that neighborhood to come and buy. And since in a low-income neighborhood a lot of people use SNAP, you’ve got to figure out how to both accept SNAP benefits as a tender for the farmers and how to attract those shoppers to use them at the farmers market. This idea of saying, “come spend a dollar of your SNAP money at the farmers market and we’ll give you an extra dollar value in produce,” that was really intriguing. The person who brought the idea to me at the Kellogg Foundation was Gus Schumacher, a former undersecretary of Agriculture. We decided to try it out in Takoma Park, Maryland. Gus died very suddenly last year, and now in the 2018 Farm Bill, Congress renamed the program the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program.

Korten: So why did you start the program in Detroit?

Hesterman: We’re located right next to Detroit, which has been considered one of the worst food deserts in the country and where approximately 40 percent of the population receives SNAP benefits. So the SNAP program is a big part of the local food economy. Detroit also has the Eastern Market, one of the most thriving inner-city farmers markets in the country. On a market Saturday, they will attract 35,000 to 45,000 people. It’s probably the most racially and socioeconomically diverse place you’re going to find in the city of Detroit. So we went to the president of Eastern Market Corporation, Dan Carmody. We said, “Dan, if we could raise the money to do this kind of incentive program at Eastern Market, are you up for this experiment?” He said, “Sure, let’s try it.”

Korten: So how did it go?

Hesterman: It worked really well. What’s so valuable about this program is that the same dollar helps families stretch their food budget in a much healthier direction and helps farmers earn more money. And we know that beginning farmers—younger farmers—benefit more from this particular program than farmers in general, because they are more likely to sell their produce direct to the customer, such as at a farmers market.

Korten: Now that the program has grown into a national effort with the backing of the federal government, how do you see the benefit of the program’s inclusion in this latest Farm Bill?

Hesterman: The 2018 bill is significant because of the amount of funds it allocates—it goes from $100 million in the 2014 bill to $250 million in the new bill. This makes support for healthy food incentives a permanent part of future farm bills or what’s called “baseline.” Our experience is that once a provision makes it into the Farm Bill as baseline, funding levels might shift over time, but the actual program doesn’t disappear. And if there’s a continuing resolution just to keep the government going, the funding for this particular program will stay intact.

Korten: What challenges does this expansion bring?

Hesterman: Every one of the dollars allocated in the Farm Bill has to be matched by nonfederal dollars. So what looks like a $250 million dollar program in the new bill is actually a $500 million dollar program. Over the years, we’ve seen those matching dollars come from private philanthropy and more recently also from state and local governments. In addition, the USDA allows an in-kind match. So if there are volunteers at a farmers market who are implementing the program, and you are able to codify the hours and their value, USDA will allow you to use those in-kind contributions as part of your match.

Korten: Given the new expansion, will it be possible to raise the matching funds?

Hesterman: I sure hope so! You can be assured that Fair Food Network will be doing our part to make sure that those funds are utilized well. While it will be a challenge to raise those matching dollars, I think part of the strength of this program from the start has been this public-private partnership. These healthy food incentive programs now exist in every state.

Korten: When there is so much acrimony in Congress, how did this program attract bipartisan support?

Hesterman: These healthy food incentive programs now exist in every state. So representatives in the House and the Senate hear from their constituents all around the country about the program. For example, one of the largest Double Up programs outside of Michigan is in Kansas. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, is from Kansas. He was able to see this operating in his home state and supported the provision in the Farm Bill.

Another reason we’ve had such broad support is that people from so many different perspectives find a home in these healthy food incentive programs: people who are concerned about public health; those concerned about hunger; those concerned about supporting local farmers and local agriculture. Some of the strongest support this time came from the grocery industry, which is a crucial partner.

Korten: How has expanding Double Up from farmers markets to retail grocery stores affected the program?

Hesterman: It opens up more opportunities for families who are participating in the SNAP program to use Double Up in many more places. Where farmers markets may be open one or two days a week, Double Up can be used at a grocery store seven days a week. So it is bringing that ability to shift to a healthier diet closer to the families that can most benefit from the program. Since the program gives preference to locally and regionally produced food, it creates a greater variety of marketing outlets for those farmers. They can market what they’re growing direct to customers at farmers markets and farm stands or they can sell wholesale to the grocers.

Korten: President Trump is pressing to Department of Agriculture to enact rules that put in work requirements to receive SNAP benefits. How will that affect the program?

Hesterman: The work requirements did not make it into the Farm Bill. Congress did not approve that. What’s happening is USDA is coming out with a ruling that will make it harder for states to receive a waiver for adults to get SNAP benefits who don’t have dependents at home and who are not working. Ultimately programs like Double Up rely on a strong SNAP program. They really go hand in hand. So we want to make sure that those who are eligible have an opportunity to enroll in the SNAP program and to benefit from programs like Double Up.

Korten: You started the Double Up program in 2009 and now healthy food incentive programs have grown nationwide. How do you assess the success?

Hesterman: If you look at the overall $867 billion in the Farm Bill’s 10-year budget, close to 80 percent—80 cents of every federal dollar we spend on the food and agriculture system—is going to SNAP. So if you want to make the food system healthier for low-income families and better support local farmers plus keep that money in the local economy, there’s no better way to do it than to help redirect SNAP dollars. It is the largest lever we have in our federal system. We’re spending more than $70 billion a year on SNAP. Imagine if we could redirect 10 percent of that money into healthier eating and support for local farmers and the local economy. That’s $7 billion a year. What if we could just do 1 percent? That would be $700 million a year.

So the $250 million over five years in the new bill is a great step. And it’s actually $500 million when you count the match. But it’s still a baby step. How do we redirect $1 billion, $2 billion, $5 billion of this money that we are spending as a nation and focus it on healthier eating and support for local farmers and strong local food economies? If you do this over time, it will improve the lives of families across the nation for generations to come. This in turn will impact health care costs, as more fruits and vegetables in the diet is the No. 1 agreed-upon dietary shift that improves health. So you can either pay the farmer now or pay the doctor later. We know that when we incentivize families to bring their SNAP dollars to purchase healthier food for their kids, they’ll do it. It’s amazing that what started as small pilot is today in all 50 states and established as a permanent part of future farm bills. I could not be more pleased.

First Published in Yes Magazine, on January 10, 2019.