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Increased Access to Local Produce Is Leading to Healthier Lives for SNAP Recipients

Advocates working to increase access to fruits and vegetables in America's food deserts report that the growing popularity of Double Up Food Bucks programs is helping curb the $160 billion spent on illnesses related to lack of healthy food.

A program in Colorado that allows federal food aid recipients like Tamara Anne to double the amount they spend on locally grown produce is transforming impoverished families' eating habits. Fittingly, the program is called Double Up Food Bucks.

"My teenager said to me recently: "Hey, mom, I want you to know I really like fruit more now," recounted Anne, as she plopped reddish-orange Palisade peaches into a cream canvas bag.

"With Double Up Food Bucks, we've been getting a few starters, and he's watching lettuce grow," she added, as she traversed a farmer's market in suburban Denver on a sunny July day. "It's so crazy. He will even clip it and eat it."

Anne is one of 5,755 federal-food-assistance recipients who, in 2017, used the program to buy Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables in 96 locations across the state. On top of that, the purchases support local farmers, many of whom grapple with drought and rising costs.

In the Centennial state, Double Up provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, recipients $1 for every $1 they spend, up to $20 per market visit per day. Farmer's market managers swipe food-aid participants electronic benefit transfer cards and hand them $20 in colorful vouchers and $20 in SNAP benefits to redeem at participating vendors.

"We've seen for rural communities with limited grocery access that the Double Up program works for them to buy at a farm, or pop-up farm stands at head start sites, libraries, or schools," said Amy Nelms, food access coordinator for LiveWell Colorado, a decade-old non-profit that runs the Double Up program in Colorado. "We're getting to a tipping point where local agriculture is accessible to everyone."

Where did Double Up come from? The Fair Food Network, an Ann Arbor-based non-profit that strives to increase access to healthy food for low-income families, developed the model for the program after piloting the initiative at Detroit farmer's markets in 2009. Today, it's available at more than 250 sites across Michigan. In Colorado, the program is two years old. The effort is also offered at hundreds of venues in 25 states that, via support from the network and local partnerships, are helping low-income people choose beets over potato chips.

In addition, both parties in Washington, D.C., also appear to embrace the broader push for produce. The 2014 Farm Bill established the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants program, or FINI, to help food-aid recipients afford produce, and included $100 million over the course of five years. Both the House and Senate versions of this year's farm bill include an expansion of this program, even as some legislators seek to tighten restrictions on food aid overall.

Since the United States Department of Agriculture launched FINI, officials have awarded 90 grants to non-profit organizations and governments nationwide. According to a 2017 report by the Farmers Market Coalition, FINI programs generated almost $8 million in SNAP and incentive purchases of fruits and vegetables at markets in 27 states. The purchases resulted in 16 million to 32 million additional servings of fresh produce for SNAP households.

Crucially, advocates working to increase access to fruits and vegetables in America's food deserts report that the growing popularity of Double Up programs is helping curb the $160 billion spent on illnesses related to lack of healthy food like diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

"Since 1980 the relative price of fruits and vegetables has gone up 40 percent, and the relative price of processed foods has gone down 20-30 percent," according to a study by the Food Trust, a Philadelphia non-profit working to improve food access.

"So while everyone may want to eat well, finances too often limit families' ability to make healthy choices," the report said.

Of course, this isn't to suggest that Double Up has completely extinguished the issue of access to healthy food for low-income families. Despite its success, the program reaches about 640,000 households—a fraction of the 20 million American households that relied on SNAP in fiscal 2018 to provide a safety net against hunger. In Colorado, only 1 percent of the estimated 475,000 people who rely on food aid benefited last year.

"A big hurdle for some communities is finding that strong anchor partner who is ready and able to manage the program," wrote Oran Hesterman, the founder and chief executive of Fair Food Network, in an email. "Implementing incentive programs such as Double Up also requires funding—so programs can only grow as big and as fast as there are resources available."

In Colorado, where LiveWell is the anchor partner, dozens of farmer's markets and other food outlets are on a waiting list, said Nelms, the non-profit's food policy coordinator. In addition, the program isn't offered in more than half of the state's 64 counties, though the Colorado legislature voted this year to allocate $200,000 to such programs, which could allow them to grow next year, especially if matching grants can be secured, she added.

Despite that, this public-private partnership is a model for others, Hesterman wrote. "An exciting trend we're also seeing is more states and other local governments coming to the table to add their support to incentives."

For farmers, Double Up is providing new customers and more money in their pockets from sales at food stalls statewide.

"Farmer's markets have a reputation of being high priced when compared to stores," said farmer John Ellis at a local market in Broomfield recently, as the smell of Indian curry wafted through the 100-degree air and a guitarist strummed folk tunes.

"Sometimes prices are higher and sometimes they are not, but the quality is better, it's fresher, and you get to talk to the person who grew it," said Ellis, who added that he will give SNAP recipients an extra peach or extra cherries.

Double Up helped to increase SNAP sales tenfold at the Boulder farmer's market, at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Prior to its implementation, SNAP purchases totaled around $10,000 a season, Boulder County Commissioner Cindy Domenico said in a 2017 LiveWell report. Now, farmers make more than $100,000 a year in such sales, which benefited 1,000 families.

The program also helps ease the stigma of using food aid at grocery stores, said Dave Carter, a bison rancher who helps manage the all-volunteer Broomfield Farmers Market.

"We want people when they come here to know there's no shame in being on assistance," he said.

To grow the program, LiveWell is relying in part on participants like Anne who attend community events and visit charitable organizations and other locations where low-income residents come for services to spread the word about Double Up. Anne works as a community food advocate for the non-profit, as does Laura Molina.

Molina, who is also the market coordinator at the The GrowHaus, a non-profit indoor farm and education center located in a working-class community in northern Denver, relies on Double Up to feed her three children healthy food.

"It's so great for me—I can choose organic food for my kids," she said. "I've tried new things that were too expensive before, like peaches, apricots, and cherries."

For Anne, who works several jobs to pay her bills, Double Up meant that she didn't have to rely on the corner store for groceries. There they sell energy drinks and cigarettes, with nary a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. A vegetarian and single mom, Anne relies on the program to provide the bulk of ingredients in her family's diet.

"I have to go cook! I have a hangry teenager wanting a fresh, healthy meal," she wrote in an email recounting her visit with a reporter to the Lakewood Farmers Market. "On the menu this week, with my purchases from the farmer's market: braised taro, sweet potato bruschetta with tomato/avocado topping, taco-stuffed summer squash boats, and cantaloupe juice. A feast, for sure!"

This story originally appeared in New America's digital magazine, New America Weekly, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get New America Weekly delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.