By Aarian Marshall
WASHINGTON, June 18, 2014 - The Fair Food Network (FFN) is bringing its much-heralded “double up food bucks” program to a chain of supermarkets in Michigan - the first time the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) strategy will be used in a chain.
The program, currently employed in a number of farmers markets and three independent supermarkets in Michigan, gives SNAP beneficiaries who buy fruits and vegetables at participating locations up to $20 in matching funds to spend later on more produce. The program began five years ago in farmers markets and is supported by the Fair Food Network and a waiver from USDA.
According to FFN President and CEO Oren Hesterman, who introduced the collaboration with food distributor SpartanNash during the annual United Fresh Produce Association meeting in Chicago last week, the program has a number of beneficiaries. The double up food bucks program “increases consumption of fruits and vegetables among SNAP shoppers, supports local farmers and keeps money in the local economy,” Hesterman said.
FFN will put up at least $200,000 in 2014 to partially cover the costs of implementing the pilot program. The group will also cover outreach to communications partners -- like the agency that coordinates SNAP education in Michigan -- and will pay for an evaluation of the pilot by an independent third party when it concludes in late November.
SpartanNash, for its part, has committed to a technological investment at the point of sale - in other words, it will pay for the technology that puts the double bucks on the grocery store’s loyalty card, to be spent at a later date. The company has also committed to clearly labeling which produce comes from Michigan -- though SNAP beneficiaries will be able to use their bucks to buy fruits and vegetables from anywhere.
“We felt [the pilot] fit perfectly into our initiative of health and wellness (and) we feel will help [beneficiaries] with a healthier lifestyle,” Brian Haaraoja, the company’s vice president of fresh merchandising, said in Chicago. The pilot will help SpartanNash “continue to develop initiatives in our produce department [and] tell [beneficiaries] how to continue to build on a healthy diet.”
“We know that customers are stressed from a food dollar standpoint,” Haaraoja said. “This is a great opportunity to be a provider for the community, give them extra produce items so they can stretch their food dollar.”
SpartanNash’s analysis of the three stores where it will be implementing the pilot -- chosen for their high SNAP redemption rates -- showed that around half of the beneficiaries who used SNAP did not use their dollars to purchase fruits and vegetables.
The pilot will be implemented in August, Hesterman and Haaraoja said, after it receives the go-ahead from USDA and after SpartanNash employees are trained to use the new SNAP technology. Haaraoja said he was also “working with the produce team and the merchandising department” to acquire even more Michigan-produced fruits and vegetables.
Meanwhile, FFN has its sights set on another program: the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grants (FINI) program. FINI, established by the 2014 Farm Bill, establishes a new competitive grant initiative within USDA to support programs that provide fruit and vegetables incentives to SNAP participants. USDA has made $100 million available over the course of five years for the grant program, with the first round of $35 million beginning this summer.
A number of different groups may apply for the funding, including nonprofit organizations, farmers markets and associations, health agencies, economic development groups, grocery and corner stores and tribal agencies. The groups must, however, match the federal grant.
FFN hopes its SpartanNash partnership will stimulate interest in “double up” programs that could be funded through FINI grants. “We’re open for business to be talking with others around the country,” Hesterman said.
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