Aid Program Supports Needy, Boosts Farmers

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Holyoke is not the kind of place where you'd expect to find a thriving farmers market. The western Massachusetts city is one of the poorest in the country, with high rates of diabetes, obesity and heart disease. But the Thursday market is busy and growing. And new revenues come from an unlikely demographic: families on federal food assistance.

Needy families are flocking to the market thanks to an innovative program, coming soon to the Washington area, that doubles the value of food stamps and fruit and vegetable coupons for low-income mothers and senior citizens. Between August and October of last year, sales using food stamps at the Holyoke market jumped 290 percent, and the number of coupons increased 60 percent. Organizers expect sales to be even higher this summer now that word about the program is out.

Attracting low-income families to farmers markets is the goal of the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which provided a $10,000 grant to the Holyoke market and funds to markets in California and Connecticut. The foundation's pitch: Doubling food assistance money helps needy families afford fresh fruits and vegetables and eat more healthfully, and the money they spend goes to another struggling x population: small farmers. Moreover, studies show that the food stamp program (recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) and similar forms of aid are among the most effective ways to stimulate the slumping economy, creating $1.73 worth of economic activity for every dollar spent.

This year, the organization will help fund similar programs in Georgia, Michigan, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District.

"Our goal is to prove to the federal government that matching works," said Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave's chief executive and the executive chef at Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, Conn. "By implementing these programs, a single dollar of stimulus impacts nutrition, helps farmers, stimulates the economy and provides a direct investment in reducing health-care costs."

Public-health advocates have long wanted to link food assistance to good nutrition. But the anti-hunger lobby objects, arguing that forcing recipients to buy only healthful products is impractical -- does SunnyD qualify? -- and smacks of paternalism. Incentives, proponents say, make the argument moot by encouraging, not requiring, families to choose healthful fruits and vegetables.

"The idea of doubling your money really resonates," said Daniel Ross, executive director of Nuestras Raices, a grass-roots community development group that helped administer the Holyoke matching program. "We've found in all our research that low-income people know what healthy food is, but because of price, they can't afford it. This helps them get the food they really want for their families."

The number of farmers markets has skyrocketed in recent years, but luring low-income families to shop has proved difficult. SNAP recipients are given electronic debit cards, which don't work at cash-only markets. And the prices that small farmers need to charge to make a profit ($5 a pound for heirloom tomatoes, for example) aren't attractive to families on a tight budget. Even the heavily subsidized Anacostia Farmers Market served an average of only 120 customers a week before closing in 2007 after nine years in business.

Nevertheless, farmers markets have been working to draw low-income families. The Crossroads market in Takoma Park was one of the first in Maryland to accept food stamps and vouchers from the Department of Agriculture's Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and senior programs. In 2007, it began to offer "fresh checks" to match up to $10 of the amount spent on the initial visit and $5 on follow-up visits. Crossroads officials hope to raise $10,000 to give away in the 2009 season.

At FreshFarm Markets, which runs eight markets in Washington and Maryland, producers have accepted fruit and vegetable vouchers from the WIC and senior programs for more than a decade. Last year, FreshFarm introduced machines to process SNAP debit cards at its Silver Spring and H Street markets. But, says co-director Ann Yonkers, a lack of awareness resulted in low redemption rates.

Prompted by success stories elsewhere, FreshFarm tried to raise money for its own double voucher program. The organization has raised $3,500 to date, and Wholesome Wave is contributing $2,500. Over the next month, FreshFarm will work to market the program at food assistance offices and with advertising on bus shelters. The matching program will launch at the two markets on July 4.

Wholesome Wave is also providing $10,000 to the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Development, which, once permits are obtained, plans to launch a double voucher coupon program at its flagship Abingdon, Va., market in southwest Virginia this summer. If the program is successful, the extra funds could boost the Abingdon market's revenues by almost 10 percent.

Some markets have tried different incentives. At the City Heights market in San Diego, Wholesome Wave and a partner, the International Rescue Committee, provided $5 to eligible low-income consumers to help them buy fresh produce. An average of 100 people a week arrived, sometimes three hours before the market opened to get the so-called fresh fund dollars. Last year, food stamp sales at the market rose more than 400 percent, and 88 percent of fresh fund customers said they ate more fresh fruits and vegetables because of the extra money.

The success of the program helped the IRC raise $45,000 for the 2009 season, three times as much as in 2008.

Wholesome Wave's Nischan supports programs that offer incentive checks to food assistance recipients. But in his experience, he said, it's the double-voucher program that is most powerful. "This is a two-for-one sale. The emotional marketing triggers are there," he said. "It works because it's capitalism."

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