For shoppers like Jon Guice the options were limited.
With nutritional food outlets in her community often hard to come by, Guice’s list of potential grocery stores, particularly affordable ones, was typically short. Then, in 2011, she learned about the Double Up Food Bucks incentive. As a recipient of the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) for low-income households, Guice could use Double Up Food Bucks at the Flint Farmers Market, which honored dollars spent in their fresh produce isles with vouchers of equal value.
For instance, if she spent $10 in SNAP benefits on fruits and vegetables at a participating farmers market she received an additional $10 in Double Up Food Bucks to purchase more fruits and vegetables.
Although the program helped Guice stretch her food dollars further during the growing season, she struggled to keep healthier foods on the table at home year-round.
Now, Fair Food Network President and CEO Oran Hesterman wants to increase that availability year-round and make those dollars go twice as far as nutritionists, doctors and others work to make sure youngsters who were exposed to lead in Flint’s water receive proper nutrition to offset the effects of the contamination.
“We are expanding and enhancing our work in the city to ensure more children and families get more healthy food precisely when they need it most,” says Hesterman.
Fair Food Network is committing up to $750,000 for Double Up incentives in Flint from June 2016 through December 2017. Combined with the SNAP expenditures that earn those Double Up incentives, a potential $1.5 million will help Flint residents bring home more healthy food.
Designed to help the city’s residents bring home healthier food, the program will expand to participating Flint grocery stores where any fresh fruit, vegetables, and, now, milk purchase earns equivalent Double Up Food Bucks to be spent on as much as $20 daily in additional produce.
“Now, don’t have to cram at one place,” says Guice.
Fresh, dried, canned, or frozen fruit or vegetables with no added sugar, salt, or oil also will earn Double Up benefits.
More than 3,000 shoppers spent more than $100,000 in Double Up Food Bucks at the Flint Farmers’ Market in 2015. That’s more Double Up dollars redeemed than at any other market in the state last season.
Along with the increased number of participating grocers, local business owners Paul and Eric Knific developed the debit card technology that will let SNAP recipients electronically transfer Double Up benefits between various retailers they patronize, making the choice of new market options even simpler. The transfer technology could be expanded for use by SNAP beneficiaries throughout Michigan and beyond.
Guice is excited about the program’s expansion, which now gives her the ability to leverage Double Up Bucks anywhere and at any time she needs them with a swipe of her card.
This is the first time benefits will be electronically transferrable between different types of retail locations in any SNAP incentive program in the country.
Those additional dollars and added locations will help many Flint families, particularly those impacted by lead exposure, support elevated nutritional needs.
“Lead is absorbed much faster on an empty stomach than a full stomach, so ensuring Flint residents, and children in particular, don’t experience hunger is critical,” says Dr. Katie Wilson, deputy undersecretary for the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
Fruits, vegetables and foods rich in calcium are recommended as part of a healthy diet for all and, particularly those exposed to contaminated water supplies. But affordability and access to quality produce are challenges in the city where more than 40 percent of residents live below the poverty level.
“While fruits and vegetables, we know, are fundamental to good health, they are even more critical in this community at this time,” says Hesterman. “Diets rich in vitamin C, iron and calcium have been recommended by experts for children who’ve been exposed to lead in the water.
An outreach campaign will be launched to inform Flint residents about Double Up and how to take full advantage of the program. There are 40,000 SNAP participants in Flint.
The Double Up program syncs perfectly with the mission of the Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF) – to encourage more Michiganders to find, buy, cook and eat more fruits and vegetable every day. MFF is a partner in the program.
“Together, the Double Up Food Bucks and SNAP-Ed programs work,” says Dr. Marci Scott, MFF vice president for health programs, who notes that enhanced access met with equal or greater educational outreach is the winning formula. “People who are part of the program not only eat more fruits and vegetables. They are learning why they are important to their health.
“We have a strong network of 272 schools, farmers markets, grocery stores and community-based settings, in Flint and Genesee County that work together to promote healthy eating habits and a physically active lifestyle.”
The collaborative effort between government, philanthropic and community programs appears aimed at blanketing Flint residents with a variety of support efforts. Other incentives announced at the conference included:
- Pre-Mixed Formula Eligibility. Although breastfeeding is the best way to feed infants, for the women on WIC with infants on formula, they have the option to purchase pre-mixed infant formula that doesn’t require water.
- Access to WIChealth.org, a resource for nutrition education, which allows recipients to complete nutrition education requirements online. The site offers both Spanish and English language support.
- Weekly healthy meal prep demonstrations and sampling are held at the Flint Famers Market and participating Meijer locations.
- Free Milk. A FlintMilk.org campaign to fund 1 million glasses of milk for residents, with Michigan Farm Families and Dairy Processors committed to $50,000 in matching funds.
- More Mobile food pantry routes. Routes have been expanded to serve more residents, who will be able to access offerings four days a week.
- New School Salad Bars. The installation of school salad bars at 15 Flint schools, which are a part of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools effort championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.
- Free Meals A Meet Up and Eat Up Park Party on June 17.
More details can be found by dialing 2-1-1 or texting “FOOD” to 877-877.
The Double Up component is funded through USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program, Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Charles Stewart Mott, Kresge, Ruth Mott, and W.K. Kellogg Foundations, Community Foundation of Greater Flint, and the You Have Our Trust Fund of the NH Charitable Foundation.
– Photo Paul Engstrom