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'Food bucks' help grow community health, economy

A brisk October weekend finds the vendor displays at the Flint Farmers' Market groaning under the weight of crisp apples, brightly colored squash, fresh meats, cheeses and other locally produced foods. Getting more of those nutritious, farm-fresh products to the tables of area low-income families and growing the economic health of local small farms are the goals behind Genesee County's Double Up Food Bucks program.

Under the program, when market customers use a federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits card to shop with participating vendors, the amount they spend is matched — up to $20 per visit — with Double Up credits that they can use to buy more food at the market.

The innovative blend of anti-poverty and economic development strategies is a project of the Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network, which promotes better access to fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income Michigan families.

Funding for the Genesee County program, including the Double Up match, is provided by a $150,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and by grants from the Ruth Mott Foundation in Flint and the New York-based Open Society Foundations.

"Double Up is all about building equity and fairness in local food systems," says network President Oran Hesterman.

"That means equitable access for everyone to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food; to good-paying jobs in the food industry; and to the land, water and means of production that smaller farms need to be in business."

With support from the Kresge Foundation in Troy, Mich., and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Hesterman piloted the Double Up model in 2009 at Eastern Market in Detroit. Interest in the program quickly blossomed.

The network, with support from the Open Society Foundations and more than 30 funders throughout Michigan, has since planted Double Up at 54 farmers' markets across the state. Those programs have enrolled 35,000 SNAP recipients, who have spent more than $1 million in combined SNAP and Double Up benefits at participating markets.

The Genesee County program kicked off in August and has enrolled more than 2,500 participants, who have earned more than $52,000 in combined benefits for spending at the Flint Farmers' Market.

In addition to increasing a family's access to fresh food, the program frees more of their limited income for other critical needs, such as housing and transportation, says Richard Ramsdell, market manager.

That's important to Cindy Mraz, a Flint-area resident and Double Up participant. She can stretch her family budget while supporting the local economy.

"It's going to help me and my family, but it's also going to help the people at the Farmers' Market," she said. "Everybody wins."

Emerging data bears this out at the market, where participating meat and poultry farmers reported a jump in sales of between 28 and 400 percent for September over the same period in 2010.

The program has clearly made a difference in the business of Rod Fowler, a vegetable farmer from nearby Swartz Creek. Within two weeks of joining the Double Up program, he saw "a phenomenal impact on our sales. We were leaving the market at the end of the day with empty trailers."

Fowler also has witnessed the program's positive effects on his customers.

"The people that we're seeing using the program, we haven't seen them at the market before," he said. "And when they realize the extra food that they can buy, well, you should see their faces."

The Genesee County program will wrap up by Nov. 30 as many small farmers finish the fall harvest. It is expected to resume in the spring.

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

 

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