The nearly $1 trillion farm bill received final approval on Tuesday from the Senate, which sent the compromise already passed by the House to President Barack Obama to be signed into law.
While it’s called the farm bill, in truth, it’s more of a food bill. It sets five years of eating and farming policy in the United States, including what we grow, what you know about your dinner and how much government spends in the process. It cuts the food stamp program and increases spending on farmers markets. Whatever you think of Congress, this is a bill that deserves some attention.
A new nationwide study shows that healthy food incentive programs at farmers’ markets significantly boost healthy eating in low-income communities, improve the economic viability of farmers, and strengthen local economies. The study, Healthy Food Incentives Cluster Evaluation, summarizes results of a two-year cluster evaluation of incentive programs run by four organizations—Fair Food Network, Wholesome Wave, marketumbrella.org, and Roots of Change—at more than 500 farmers’ markets in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
This study proves that regardless of the setting—urban or rural, small or large—healthy food incentives work. Incentive programs match Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamp— dollars spent at farmers’ markets to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. Findings show that incentives significantly boost healthy eating among SNAP recipients.
The incentives also create economic opportunities in the communities in which low-income Americans live by helping direct SNAP dollars towards purchases of healthy foods sourced from regional farmers, processors, and wholesalers. As incentive programs bring SNAP families to farmers’ markets, farmers report selling more produce, making more money, and having more new and repeat customers. The development of this new customer base has a ripple effect that stimulates economic activity and opportunity in low-wealth communities. Using an economic multiplier model, the study calculated that the SNAP incentives in just these markets generated upwards of $4.3 million in economic activity, saving or creating up to 47 jobs.
The study also showed an impressive growth in SNAP incentive programs nationwide. The four organizations, leaders in healthy food incentives, almost tripled the number of markets they supported from 177 markets in 2010 to 518 markets in 2012. In 2012 alone, the four organizations served more than 131,000 SNAP customers and almost 5,000 farmers, with participating families redeeming more than $1.5 million in incentives in addition to their SNAP benefits to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
The goal of the study was to support existing healthy food incentive implementation and provide a framework for future investments and potential federally funded national expansion. Healthy food incentives have provided rare common ground for Democrats and Republicans with language funding incentives included in every farm and nutrition bill passed by both houses of Congress in 2012 and 2013.
Additional private and public funding is crucial to support this powerful tool which is meeting the immediate food needs of struggling families, growing a new customer base for beginning, small, and mid-scale farmers, and creating jobs and spurring economic activity in low income areas.
In plain speak, the section creates the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program expanding projects to increase the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets.
Don’t let the simplicity of the idea fool you about its potential. I believe it has the power to remake federal nutrition assistance. The concept in various forms has been tested in more than 25 states. Farm bill passage would allow it to be expanded across the nation.
It’s earned support from both sides of the aisle for the obvious reason that it’s good for families—both for the families who grow our food, and for the families who continue to struggle in the wake of the Great Recession.
Organizations such as, Fair Food Network, pioneered the first of these programs to be implemented across an entire state. We started “Double Up Food Bucks” in 2009 at five farmers markets in Detroit. Last summer, Double Up incentives were used in more than 100 markets across Michigan, and we piloted an expansion into grocery stores.
Here’s how it works: recipients of food stamps—also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—show their benefits cards at local farmers markets. For every dollar spent at the market, they receive an equal amount in tokens to be redeemed for Michigan produce, up to $20 per visit.
It’s precisely the kind of inventive partnership that voters are demanding from their government. And it’s proven.
Double-up programs grow local food economies by encouraging purchases from local producers. In a 2012 survey of the program, 83 percent of participating farmers said they made more money at farmers markets with Double Up Food Bucks.
Second, they improve access to, and the affordability of, fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income families. More than three-quarters of SNAP users said the program helped increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they consume. Just an important, nearly 90 percent said they used benefits on fewer low-nutrition or high-fat snacks as a result of Double Up Food Bucks.
Boosting the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by vulnerable populations is critical. These are the very same people who are disproportionately likely to suffer from type-2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. And how is that treatment for those diseases paid for? Often with Medicaid or Medicare.
With incentive programs like those supported by the farm bill, we can begin to turn SNAP from strictly an anti-hunger program into an anti-hunger and pro-health program. We can quite literally pay the farmer now, instead of the doctor later.
I understand why my friends worry that the farm bill reduces SNAP spending too much. But this is the best chance we have of protecting the integrity of this program, which is critical to the food security of low-income Americans.
Our representatives in Congress cannot sidestep their duty to the nation. This farm bill limits some of the egregious payments to rich, corporate farms that should have been done away with long ago. Many of the likely provisions promote healthy food systems in unprecedented ways.
It can also begin to shift public policy to make future federal nutrition programs simultaneously support individual health and a more sustainable food system.
It’s no accident that our organization is based in Michigan. The Midwest is a practical region. We care for our neighbors, and we support solutions that work. Healthy food incentives like Double Up Food Bucks do both.