How Food Stamps Are Keeping Small Farms in Business

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

On a weekend morning, the farmers market stretches out like a long caterpillar. Customers mill about, pushing strollers and walking dogs. A band is playing something folksy. Vendors stand behind tables that are literally spilling over with winter greens and root vegetables. It’s a picture-perfect image that connotes abundance and community — if you have the cash for it.

The local food movement has been criticized for catering to middle- and upper-class Americans, and for leaving behind the low-income in all of the hype for Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and “know your farmer” initiatives touted in glossy food magazines. But in the last decade, food justice activists have sought to correct this, connecting low-income consumers with cooking classes, gardening workshops, children’s programming, and locally grown and culturally appropriate foods.

Enter Double Up Food Bucks, a program that doubles Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) benefits for recipients shopping at participating farmers markets or grocery stores, up to $20 per visit. Launched by the nonprofit Fair Food Network, Double Up Food Bucks began at five Detroit farmers markets in 2009. Today, 20 states have launched programs modeled after the original, including my home state of Arizona.

“Double Up is a win-win-win,” says Adrienne Udarbe, executive director of Pinnacle Prevention, the nonprofit that manages Arizona’s statewide Double Up initiative. “SNAP recipients have access to more fruits and vegetables, local farmers make more money, and more dollars stay in the local economy.”

Pinnacle Prevention operates 23 Double Up sites across Arizona under the Fair Food Network national umbrella, including a mobile market with 80 stops on its route. Each of them has seen an uptick in SNAP spending, and Udarbe says local produce vendors have indicated an increase in sales since the program started.

Since Pinnacle Prevention’s Double Up program began in 2016, Udarbe says SNAP spending at participating farmers markets has increased by between 67 and 290 percent. Additionally, 84 percent of SNAP customers shopping at Pinnacle Prevention’s Double Up sites responded that they “buy and eat a greater variety of fruits and vegetables as a result of Double Up Food Bucks.” This increase in spending is significant, especially since in 2016, nationwide SNAP spending dropped to its lowest point since 2010.

The handful of Double Up programs in Arizona that are not managed by Pinnacle Prevention have also reported ballooning SNAP spending after their programs began. The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona (CFBSA), one of Arizona’s earliest adapters of the Double Up concept, reported $9,000 in SNAP spending at its Tucson farmers markets in 2015. But in 2016, after receiving federal funding to implement Double Up, program manager Audra Christophel says SNAP spending at CFBSA markets increased to $37,000. And in 2017, the total SNAP spending exceeded $43,000 — nearly half of which was spent on Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables.

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In September 2018, the federal Farm Bill will expire. This means legislators are working now to craft a nearly $900 billion piece of legislation to steer food and agriculture programs over the next five years, including crop insurance, farmer loans, SNAP, and the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants program that funds Pinnacle Prevention’s Double Up program. Udarbe says including FINI in the 2018 Farm Bill is important for the SNAP customers and farmers who count on similar produce incentive programs across the country.

But the recent unveiling of the USDA America’s Harvest Box, part of a theoretical overhaul to the SNAP program that would include deep cuts, shows that the Trump administration may have a different plan in mind. America’s Harvest Box — a Blue Apron-style box for SNAP recipients — would contain pre-determined rations of US-produced breads, shelf-stable milk, pastas, and canned goods.

The box program was immediately met with widespread criticism from individuals and organizations working in the fields of nutrition and food security. In February, when a USDA official discussed the concept of America’s Harvest Box during a National Anti-Hunger Policy Conference, Politico reported that “boos and mocking laughter erupted” from a crowd of 1,200 anti-hunger advocates, and “at least 20 people walked out in protest.”

Udarbe says, “The Harvest Box idea contradicts everything we have been doing over the past decade to move in a direction that best supports food-insecure families and farmers.” Indeed, America’s Harvest Box would remove the element of choice and would not provide fresh fruits or vegetables. It would also cut back on the economic opportunities for local produce farmers across the United States, who have come to count on the Double Up program for sales.

The far-reaching benefits of Double Up, combined with increased pressure by the federal government for states to cough up funding for such programs, are at the foundation of SB 1245, a new bill introduced by State Sen. Kate Brophy McGee (R).

If passed, SB 1245 would allocate $400,000 from the Arizona state general fund to be used as a match for Double Up Food Bucks. Udarbe and Christophel each say that federal grant applications will be more competitive if they can show a match from the state. “While match requirements aren’t new to USDA grants,” says Udarbe, it helps if applicants can show “evidence of buy-in and support from local leaders.”

And though SB 1245 was introduced before the unveiling of America’s Harvest Box by the USDA, it’s hard not to contrast the two strategies — they’re literally at opposite ends of the continuum. “I passionately, passionately believe in this bill,” said McGee during public hearing for the bill. “If we are going to be spending food stamp dollars, this is where we need to be spending them.”

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As a former vegetable farmer and SNAP recipient, I’ve been on both sides of the table — I actually qualified for SNAP when I was growing food for my community, a cruel irony replicated among the millions of food insecure food workers in America. Farmers are often low-income (in fact, median farm income is projected to be negative $1,316 in 2018), a fact that highlights the role of programs like Double Up in providing economic benefits for direct-market farmers.

“Funding for this program truly is the world to local farmers who sell directly at farmers markets in terms of being able to not only feed their families, but keep lights on and keep a roof over their heads,” says Udarbe.

This sentiment is echoed by Dave Brady, a vegetable producer from Pinal County in Arizona, who testified in support of SB 1245. “I was basically at the point where farmers markets just weren’t working for me,” he says. “But the one thing that made sense to me was Double Up SNAP program. It just makes it possible for me to get my volumes up to a level that’s practical, that I can actual make a decent living at it.”

Because of Double Up, Brady has started experimenting with a box program for seniors in his community who are SNAP recipients. A far cry from America’s Harvest Box, Brady’s boxes are comprised of fresh fruits and vegetables and customized to meet the needs of the seniors.

“When seniors participate in Double Up, I can help them stretch their food dollars and supply them with enough locally grown produce for an entire month,” he says.

In the months ahead, votes by federal and state lawmakers may determine the future of the Double Up program — and the lives of the consumers and farmers like Brady who depend on it.