Limited access to grocery stores selling fresh produce was blamed for poor diet leading to soaring obesity rates. Yet the city was also home to Eastern Market, one of the most vibrant farmers’ markets in any inner city in the United States.
That was the year the Fair Food Network decided to test a new program in Detroit to improve low-income residents’ access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Families receiving SNAP food assistance (aka food stamps) were encouraged to spend their food aid dollars at Eastern Market and two smaller Detroit farmers’ markets. Up to $20 of their SNAP purchases were matched with $20 in tokens to purchase fruit and vegetables at the markets.
The program, called Double Up Food Bucks, “just seemed like a perfect intersection of need and opportunity,” says Oran Hesterman, founder and CEO of the Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network. “The goal right from the beginning was to create a program that could be scaled up and expanded nationally.”
In 2010 the George Soros Open Society Foundations pledged matching funds to expand Double Up Food Bucks throughout the state. By 2013, 150 farmers’ markets in Michigan accepted SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks, and $1.5 million in food assistance was being spent at the markets, up from a mere $160,000 just six years earlier.
In 2014, the initiative inspired a provision in the federal farm bill that now delivers $100 million in matching funds to similar programs around the country. Today farmers’ markets in thirty-three states have a Double Up Food Bucks or a similar program. Hesterman calls it a “win-win-win situation.” Low-income families get healthier food, farmers get new customers, and more money stays in the local economy.
For an organization making such a big impact nationally, the nonprofit keeps a pretty low profile locally, occupying an inconspicuous office above the Blue Tractor brewpub on Washington St. Hesterman founded it in 2008 after a long career in agriculture, first as an organic farmer and businessman in California, and later as an agronomy professor at Michigan State University and with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, awarding grants for local food programs.
Though most people don’t realize it, nearly 80 percent of federal farm spending is dedicated to food assistance and other nutrition programs. “Redirecting even a small portion of that to locally grown, nutritious fruits and vegetables can be a game changer both for our health outcomes and for local food systems and farming,” says Emilie Engelhard, Fair Food Network communications director.
In testimony before the U.S. House Agriculture Committee subcommittee on nutrition this February, Hesterman estimated that 90 percent of all Double Up Food Bucks are redeemed. And in a 2014 survey of Double Up Food Bucks shoppers conducted by Fair Food Network at sixty-one markets, 87 percent said they were eating more fresh fruit and vegetables as a result of the program.
Double Up Food Bucks are accepted at ten farmers’ markets in Washtenaw County. The Westside Farmers’ Market in the parking lot of Zingerman’s Roadhouse doesn’t see much traffic from SNAP and Double Up Food Bucks shoppers–manager Anne Reinhold says she processes an average of five or six purchases a week. But the program is more popular at the Ypsilanti Farmers Market, which was one of the first in Michigan to accept SNAP. Amanda Edmonds, executive director of Growing Hope, which operates the market, says that about 25 to 35 percent of the market’s sales come from the seven different kinds of food assistance the market accepts.
“Everyone wants healthy food,” Edmonds says. “We’ve had to counter the belief that poor people don’t want to eat healthy. It’s not a class issue.”
This article has been edited since it was published in the September 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. The amount of matching funds provided by the 2014 farm bill has been corrected.