An incentive program that doubles food insecure consumers’ purchasing power when it comes to locally grown fruits and vegetables has gotten a big boost from a recent federal grant.
Double Up Food Bucks Oregon is run by the nonprofit Farmers Market Fund, with researchers at Oregon State University measuring its effectiveness in encouraging participants in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to buy more produce from Oregon farmers, which boosts sales for farmers and local retailers, too.
Through the program, for every dollar SNAP participants spend on eligible foods at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, they get an additional dollar to spend on Oregon-grown fruits and vegetables.
In fall 2020, the program was awarded a three-year, $1.9 million competitive grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand to more farmers markets, grocery stores and community-supported agriculture (CSA) producers throughout the state of Oregon, with the goal of reaching a larger share of the 700,000 Oregon residents currently receiving SNAP benefits.
The grant is especially crucial in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated employment crisis, says Stephanie Grutzmacher, a researcher in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences who is evaluating the impact of Double Up Food Bucks on Oregon consumers.
“Food insecurity is projected to have tripled during this period for households with children,” she says. Though employment has rebounded somewhat from its nadir in April and May of this year, women in particular have had to stay out of the labor force to care for young children, many of whom are learning remotely from home, as the pandemic coincides with Oregon’s dearth of child care options.
A recent OSU report estimates that roughly 25% of Oregonians have experienced food insecurity in 2020, with Black, Hispanic/Latino and Indigenous households and single mother households hardest hit.
In response to people’s falling income, federal SNAP benefits have been expanded to people whose children were receiving free or reduced lunch at school, and the monthly maximum benefit for families already receiving SNAP was increased.
“The pandemic has left many Oregonians to rely on SNAP for the first time in their lives. At the same time, countless small farmers are facing hardship as the result of decreased sales from major customers like restaurants, schools and health care facilities,” Stephanie says. “It’s really valuable to be able to have resources to spend really directly on a vulnerable population throughout the whole state.”
Along with fresh produce, the program covers canned, dried and frozen fruits and vegetables, as long as they don’t contain added sugars, fats, oils or salt.
The grant money will also go toward technical support for grocery stores to ensure they’re able to process the Double Up Food Bucks coupons, along with some promotional materials so SNAP participants know the program exists and how to use it.
Snap To It!, an OSU Extension Services program that leads farmers market tours to educate new customers on how to shop on a budget, is currently being adapted for community-supported agriculture (CSAs) and grocery retailers and will include cooking demonstrations and tastings, as well.
Grocery store tours can teach unit pricing, comparison shopping and the concept of sticking to the “outside” of the store where the perishable foods are found, rather than the interior aisles where all the processed food lives. Program leaders hope the cooking demonstrations will help shoppers learn to use fruits and vegetables to create easy, affordable meals on their own.
In expanding Double Up Food Buck’s reach, the grant will also give researchers the opportunity to determine best practices, which will help inform similar incentive programs around the country. That work will include gauging farmers’ and vendors’ experiences with the program, identifying barriers to participation for older adults and people with chronic illnesses, and comparing outcomes at $10 versus $20 incentive levels.
“If we can demonstrate evidence that this is an effective and well-liked strategy to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP participants, there’s a greater likelihood of more stable funding for incentive programs around the country,” Stephanie says.