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Incentive program helps stretch SNAP dollars at farmers markets

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

From Harvest Public Media:

A successful program in Michigan that helps hungry families buy more healthy food is expanding across the country.

This month, Iowa joins more than a dozen other states in offering Double Up Food Bucks. Although the programs vary a bit from state to state, the basic idea is the same: SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) dollars are matched (usually up to a certain cap), giving the shopper more money to spend at farmers markets or other places where local fruits and vegetables are available.

The USDA has been working to enroll more farmers markets to accept SNAP. Programs like Double Up Food Bucks provide an incentive for SNAP recipients to take advantage.

Aryn McLaren, director of programs at Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative, which is bringing the program to the Hawkeye State, says when low-income families don’t have enough food, they often don’t eat healthy.

“They may be food insecure but then also when they do have access to food it’s not always fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy, things that have nutritional value,” McLaren says.

But she says research in Michigan shows Double Up Food Bucks, which began in 2009, is helping increase fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP users who shop at farmers markets. It also brings more customers to local farmers and keeps more dollars in the community.

“It really is a three-fold win for the areas that have this program,” she says. In rural communities where grocery stores number ever fewer, and in other food deserts, she says the additional access to fresh produce can be especially valuable.

Double Up Food Bucks provides a toolkit with marketing materials and other information and McLaren says Fair Food Network, the parent organization of Double Up, has been helpful and supportive as Iowa has launched its pilot version of the program.

“Iowa ranks 50th in fruit and vegetable consumption in the nation,” McLaren says. “So we are dead last.” That fact helped motivate the Healthiest State Initiative, which secured funding from the World Food Prize to bring the incentive program to six communities. At farmers markets in those communities, SNAP users can receive $20 in farmers market tokens when they cash in $10 of their benefits.

Colorado has more than 30 locations participating in Double Up Food Bucks, including farmers markets, small shops and food box sites.

Other Midwestern states with programs include Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.