Stretching a monthly budget for groceries can be a challenge for many families, but for beneficiaries of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) it is especially tough. Families that use SNAP often have to forgo buying fresh, nutritious local produce as it can be financially out of reach after buying other food staples and necessities.
How to help low income families afford fresh fruit and vegetables is the problem that Fair Food Network set out to solve in Michigan a decade ago with its Double Up Food Bucks healthy food incentives program.
Double Up matches SNAP, or food stamps, spent on fruits and vegetables. It makes fresh produce like tomatoes, corn, squash, beans and apples more affordable for low-income families and is a win for local farmers and local businesses because it channels more money into the local economy.
The initiative proved both effective and popular. It has expanded from Michigan to 26 states, including New Hampshire (with support here from the New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation and other funders).
SNAP is the nation’s nutrition assistance safety net
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the cornerstone of the nation’s nutrition assistance safety net. It serves a broad spectrum of low-income people. According to USDA Food and Nutrition Service’s latest profile of New Hampshire SNAP households, more than 37,000 families receive SNAP benefits (out of more than half a million total households in the state).
Approximately 80% of SNAP households report at least one person in the household working, but the median income of SNAP households is a little more than $23,000 per year (compared to the state’s $74,000 median household income).
The Double Up program provides affordable access to local fresh produce and encourages SNAP enrollment for eligible families. By taking advantage of SNAP, families have more money to cover other expenses,” says New Hampshire Children’s Health Foundation Program Director Patti Baum.”
Small business is committed to the community
Liz Alpern leads the Double Up Food Bucks program on behalf of Fair Food Network in New Hampshire. She coordinates the program in several states and has worked with local grocery stores to introduce the concept to them. For locations interested in participating in Double Up, she works closely with store managers to implement the program and provides ongoing support.
To say that Liz is enthusiastic about the Double Up program is an understatement. “I love working with the small business owners and store owners in New Hampshire,” she says with a light in her eye and a smile on her face, “Because they are truly committed to the community.”
Fourteen independently owned grocery stores are now participating in the Double Up incentive program in the state including stores in Colebrook, Berlin, North Conway, Hanover, Keene, Laconia, Lebanon and Somersworth.
The way Double Up works is fairly simple. At the participating grocery store a SNAP recipient selects the fresh fruit or vegetables they want along with the rest of their groceries, pay at the cash register with their EBT card and automatically get a 50% discount on the produce portion of their purchase. (For example, $10 in SNAP money buys $20 in produce.) The participating store is reimbursed by Fair Food Network for the discount.
Pretty straightforward, right?
It is once it’s all set up, and that’s Liz’s job.
“We try to approach stores with realistic asks about the implementation and the tools,” she said. “Over the years you learn how to present the program so that it’s not scary. The store managers understand that they don’t have to change everything that they are doing and they don’t have to buy new equipment.”
Overcoming barriers to implementation
The hardest part for store managers is the technology piece, says Alpern. It usually just involves making a small technology tweak to the computer system behind the cash register. But that is one more technology tweak for the store and staff members need to be trained to use it.
“The resistance is never to the program concept,” she says, “It’s to the implementation.”
“Now that we have 14 stores in the program many of them use the same computer programs at their registers,” Alpern said. “So now a store in Colebrook can call a store in Berlin and they hear that it’s not a big deal and this is how you handle it.”
“People deserve quality food and it should be affordable,” says Alan Reetz of Hanover Co-op Food Stores, which participates in Double Up. “From our perspective, it’s in the DNA of a coop to provide access to that. For us, out of the gate the request to participate was a ‘yes,’” he said.
“We understand the issues of people who are facing poverty and wanted to get behind the Double Up program to help close that gap,” Reetz emphasized.
The big idea underlying the Double Up program is a “triple-win,” according to Alpern. One, local farmers benefit. Two, local businesses and economies thrive. And three, low income families are able to eat healthier food. By making fresh produce much more affordable, farmers and stores sell more of it.
“The reasons we wanted to participate were first, to help local farmers. Second, to help the elderly who need good food. Most importantly, to help kids get more high quality produce,” said Bob Fitzpatrick, store manager of Vista Foods in downtown Laconia, another local market participating in the Double Up program.
The store labels produce from local farms and Fitzpatrick has heard from his elderly customers in particular that they feel blessed that they can buy fresh local produce. “They’re on limited incomes and can’t buy much,” he said. “This really helps them. I’m very happy that we are in the program.”
Getting the word out
The other challenge of Alpern’s job in bringing the Double Up Food Bucks to New Hampshire was making SNAP beneficiaries in communities near participating stores aware of it.
“My biggest issue is getting the word out,” she states.
“We provide signage for all the stores. It’s a national brand so we have a lot of feedback on what works. We provide posters, register signage and bag stuffers. We also conduct training at DHHS offices,” she said.
Fair Food Network partners with UNH Cooperative Extension. UNH Nutrition Educators are assigned to each location within the county they work in to conduct outreach and education among SNAP beneficiaries.
“When the program is introduced to consumers the question is, ‘What’s the catch?’” Alpern says, “But this program gets a lot of loyalty quickly. Once a customer uses it once, they will keep on using it.”
Alpern works with stores when they train staff to take steps to reduce any taboo that might be associated with using the Double Up program. “We try to train the cashiers to be sensitive to it,” she says.
“We don’t have the funds or resources to get into every store,” Alpern says, “But we are hopeful that by shining a light on the win to farmers, local economies and people of limited means, that the Double Up concept will be embraced by policy makers at both the state and national levels.”
Learn more about Double Up in New Hampshire at www.doubleupnh.org.