Double Up Food Bucks Modeling Healthy Food Incentives for the Nation

One night in early October, VJ Almond, a 60-year-old caretaker for her elderly mother, is about to sit down with her mom at their small, round dining room table to a meal chock-full of vegetables, which she purchased at a farmers’ market near her apartment on the west side of Detroit. She bought her produce using the Double Up Food Bucks program, which provides low-income people like Almond with a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $20 per day, that can be spent on any fresh, local fruits and vegetables.

“I can buy more fruits and vegetables now,” Almond said. “I cut up some onions and did a little stir fry. Bell peppers. Carrots. Stir fried that and made meat loaf with vegetables in it.”

Double Up Food Bucks was launched in 2009 at just five Detroit farmers’ markets by Fair Food Network, an Ann Arbor-based national nonprofit focused on food system equity and sustainability. Based on Fair Food Network data, within the first five years, the program increased healthy food access for over 300,000 low-income families and benefitted over 1,000 farmers by attracting more sales. Double Up Food Bucks now provides low-income Americans access to healthy produce in nearly 20 states and over 200 farmers’ markets, supermarkets, and other sites in Michigan alone, according to Lindsay Way, the Double Up Food Bucks Program Associate at Fair Food Network. While Double Up Food Bucks was originally funded through private philanthropic support, it is now also funded through USDA grants.

“Most of us don’t consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and it’s even worse in low-income households,” Kevin Concannon, the Undersecretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the USDA said. Double Up Food Bucks is “a way of nudging Americans in the direction of eating healthier.”

In addition to low-income customers benefitting by doubling their purchasing power on produce, local farmers also benefit from increased sales. “It brought in a totally different group of customers than if we didn’t have the program,” said Scott Robertello, an owner of Kapnick Orchards, a vendor at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market.

“It’s a win-win-win,” said Fair Food Network’s Way. “It’s a win for low-income consumers, a win for farmers, and a win for local economics because it keeps dollars local.”

When Oran Hesterman, President and CEO of Fair Food Network, was originally creating Double Up Food Bucks, he envisioned a program that would not only incentivize local, healthy food purchases, but also act as a model for other communities. Due to a busy work schedule, Mr. Hesterman could not comment.

In 2013, early on in efforts towards national expansion, Hesterman was a keynote speaker at a food and farming conference in upstate New York. His presentation on Double Up Food Bucks resonated with the local audience, according to Lisa Tucker French, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Field and Fork Network, a food and farming organization in western New York. Soon after, the Double Up Food Bucks program launched in 2014 at seven farmers’ markets across western New York, placing it among the first few locations outside of Michigan to institute the program.

In 2014, the USDA Farm Bill established the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program. Recently, on October 20, 2016, the USDA announced up to $16.7 million for the third round of funding to support programs that increase low-income households’ access to fruits and vegetables. Grant applications are due in December and funding will be announced this spring.

“The introduction of federal resources has energized the field and created new momentum around it and new excitement of people around the country to bring healthy food into their communities,” Fair Food Network’s Engelhard said.

Efforts at national expansion are ongoing. Fair Food Network is providing technical assistance for a Double Up model in Louisiana and working to lay the groundwork in Nevada to launch a program. However, because a lot depends on the outcomes of this round of federal funding, Engelhard could not specify program launch dates.

In the spring of 2016, Field and Fork Network was awarded a regional level federal grant for $393,813, spurring further expansion of Double Up to more western New York sites, and allowing it to soon become available at some markets year-round. “It really has, for lack of a better word, exploded,” said Tucker French. She also said that they are working to develop technological solutions, similar to Fair Food Network, to collect data and mitigate issues with manually counting and tracking the Double Up tokens, which are widely used for exchange in the program.

“The next area that needs smart thinking is around technology; how do we develop technological solutions that support transactions and data collection simultaneously?”

Tucker French sees immense opportunities that an electronic system can provide. She believes it will create a better understanding of how customers are spending their Double Up dollars and allow for customizing nutrition education based on that data.

“There is a long-term impact that we have yet to fully understand,” said Tucker French. “This is a new piece in the public health realm in terms of combatting against lifestyle diseases.”

Double Up Food Bucks continues to expand nationally and improve to meet specific needs within communities where it is already implemented. Some sites have enough funding to continue the program through winter, while others stop in fall.

VJ Almond said that since she started using Double Up Food Bucks she is cooking more and eating better, maintaining control of her diabetes, and keeping her blood pressure down. She has even encouraged other Detroit residents to use the program. However, the farmers’ market near her does not continue in winter and her nearest supermarket does not receive funding for the program.

“Since it stopped I just go back to the grocery store I shop at in the suburbs. Basically now I’m doing canned vegetables, but trying to keep it healthy,” Almond said, “but I appreciate it when it’s going on, from the time it starts until it’s done.”

 

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Kapnick Orchard’s table at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market with a “Double Up Food Bucks Accepted Here” sign proudly displayed

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About Genevieve

I am a senior at the University of Michigan studying Public Policy with a focus in Public Health

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