Farm bill contains farmers market program that food advocates for poor see as hopeful

Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly said that FreshFarm Markets will match Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits up to $10. The match is up to $15. This version has been corrected.

Buried in more than 900 pages of the new farm bill is a small nationwide program that will ­allow low-income families to double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets.

It’s not an empty gesture Congress is making to the poor after slashing $8 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program budget, advocates said. They see it as a program that will help tens of thousands of SNAP users eat more nutritious foods, perhaps avoiding a paradox of the poor: getting fat on food stamps.

Details of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program have yet to be hammered out, but proponents say that if it proves as successful as similar state efforts, the Agriculture Department’s $100 million program could help hungry families and also address the country’s obesity crisis.

“This program helps families buy healthy food from their local farmers markets, which also helps family farmers and boosts the economy,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, who was instrumental in introducing the plan.

The program is expected to provide matching funds to farmers markets, up to $20 million annually for five years, to incentivize SNAP recipients to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables with their benefits.

First, however, the long-
delayed farm bill must get out of Congress. House lawmakers approved the $956.4 billion package Wednesday, and the Senate is expected to do so by Friday before sending it on to President Obama for his signature.

It can’t happen soon enough for people like Oran Hesterman, president and chief executive of Fair Food Network, a nonprofit organization in Michigan working to give the poor better access to healthy foods.

Hesterman has seen how such programs incentivize low-income families to buy more produce.

Since they were launched at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park in 2004, SNAP incentive programs have spread across the country. By one estimate, there are more than 500 farmers markets with such programs.

“We know that it’s higher than that, but we can document only 500,” Hesterman said.

Many of the state and local programs work the same: Foundations and other organizations raise money to supplement SNAP purchases at a farmers market or similar venue where local fruits and vegetables are sold. The participating market then will double the SNAP benefits up to a certain dollar amount, usually $10 or $20. Some markets will also the items that can be purchased; for example, the Double Up Food Bucks, run by Fair Food Network, allows the SNAP recipients to spend their supplemental dollars only on locally grown produce.

Despite the restrictions, the Double Up Food Bucks program has exploded in recession-ravaged Michigan. In 2007, SNAP sales at Michigan farmers markets were $16,000. After Double Up Food Bucks launched in 2009, it quickly grew from five markets in Detroit to more than 100 outlets across the state, where SNAP recipients spent more than $1.5 million of their benefits in 2013.

Last year the program even moved into a few supermarkets in Detroit.

Hesterman said the program has been good medicine for Michigan. According to the program’s own data, about 95 percent of SNAP users said the program increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet. Just as important, Hesterman added, 90 percent said they were spending less of their SNAP benefits on junk food.

“You can pay the farmer now instead of the doctor later,” Hesterman said.

Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit group with a mission similar to Fair Food’s, has seen comparable growth with its Double Value Coupon Program, which launched in 2008 with a handful of farm-to-retail markets in the Northeast, said Gus Schumacher, executive vice president of policy for the group. The program has grown to more than 300 retail outlets in 24 states and the District of Columbia, generating nearly $2.4 million in 2012 between SNAP benefits and incentive purchases.

But the real value to Schumacher is the relationship between SNAP recipients and farmers. He recalls watching an elderly woman shop at a farmers market last year in Montpelier, Vt. She had $2.16 left on her SNAP card, with eight days left until her benefits renewed. But she used money at the market, Schumacher said, because of the incentive program and because she knew the farmers would give her extra produce on top of any Double Value coupons.

“That would not happen in a supermarket,” Schumacher said.

Hesterman said that while the current allocation is only $100 million, the number could increase with the next farm bill in five years, if the program proves successful. If it increased to 1 percent of the SNAP budget, for example, it would be about $800 million to spend annually on an incentive program at farmers markets, he said. “That would be a game changer,” Hesterman said.

On a local level, the current legislation could mean an additional $10 or more in the pockets of SNAP users, said Bernadine Prince, co-executive director of the FreshFarm Markets in the Washington area. FreshFarm runs its own incentive program, currently capped at $15 in matching SNAP benefits. With federal funds available, Prince said FreshFarm could increase the limit to $20, or even $30. That could go a long way with low-income families in Washington, she said.

“These are savvy shoppers,” Prince said.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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