For a city known as Foodtopia, Asheville often struggles to provide its less privileged citizens access to the promised paradise. Between rising housing prices and the ever-growing urban sprawl, nonprofit Feeding America, which counts MANNA FoodBank among its member organizations, found in a 2014 study that 14.3 percent of the population of Buncombe County is food-insecure.
Data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that one in six North Carolinians rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), and 44 percent of those recipients are children. Another large percentage of the state’s SNAP benefits go to the elderly and disabled.
So what can a city do? How can a place like Asheville, known for its award-winning chefs and thriving restaurant scene, keep its kids from going hungry? Along with other methods of attack, the Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council has discovered another potentially effective tool for chipping away at the region’s food insecurity. Slated for implementation locally at the end of April, the Double Up Food Bucks program was originally developed to alleviate food insecurity in Detroit.
More for your money
“It began at a handful of farmers markets, and over the years it spread outward to more states and more types of retail facilities,” says Nicole Hinebaugh, program director at Bountiful Cities, which has taken on the task of overseeing the program’s pilot project. “It is now in about 20 states across the U.S. in farmers markets, grocery stores, corner stores, CSAs [community supported agriculture projects] and farm stands. Any place that you can accept SNAP and that has locally grown produce available is able to host this program.”
The basic idea is that anyone who receives federal SNAP or EBT benefits can venture into any participating Double Up Food Bucks location, and their purchase of locally grown produce — and only produce — will be matched dollar for dollar on any other fruit and veggies purchased from the same establishment. “It is a way for low-income shoppers — people who are using SNAP and EBT — to double their bucks on local produce purchases,” explains Hinebaugh.
According to CBPP, the average SNAP benefit per recipient per meal in North Carolina is a meager $1.33 — sales tax is excluded from SNAP sales. The promise of doubling those dollars could potentially add up to some significant numbers in the long run. In a 2013 report, Moody’s Analytics estimated that in a slumping economy, every dollar spent through SNAP generates $1.70 in economic activity, allowing families that are stressed for every penny a little slack to spend money on household and personal needs outside the grocery store.
Supporting local farmers
“Local food can be more expensive,” says Terri March, who oversees the Buncombe County Community Health Improvement Process. The partnership between Mountain Area Health Education Center and Buncombe County Health and Human Services is another key partner in the implementation of the Double Up Food Bucks initiative. “But that is potentially one of the win-wins in this, is that it is also a gift back to our local economy and local farmers. By increasing people’s purchasing power, it makes produce that maybe ordinarily seemed out of reach of a SNAP participant affordable. So we are hoping that people will now see that because they do have those extra resources, that they can actually afford to purchase local food.”
It is helpful to view the program, in this sense, less as an expansion of SNAP and more as a local subsidy for regional farmers. As Hinebaugh observes, “What’s happened across the country, is that this has enabled farmers to expand their operations, make more money, purchase equipment they haven’t been able to purchase before and even grow more varieties of food. And it keeps our local dollars in the local economy.”
One of the factors that can keep locally grown foods at a prohibitive price point is consumption, or lack thereof. But the closer the amount grown comes to balancing with the amount sold, the more likely the price is to drop to rates more competitive and comparable with mass-distributed produce. It’s the old supply-and-demand chart in living, breathing action.
The ABFPC’s planning team, which has worked for more than a year to launch Double Up Food Bucks, will continue to manage the pilot effort. The team includes representatives from Buncombe County, the county Department of Health and Human Services, MANNA FoodBank, MAHEC, Youth Empowered Solutions, UNC Asheville, the North Carolina Center for Health & Wellness and the YWCA.
To begin with, the program will focus on gaining a foothold in retail shops. Two stores will kick off the dollar-for-dollar matching effort: the French Broad Food Co-op — which has been involved since the program’s inception — and the West Village Market. Both stores are noticeably more expensive than major grocers, but both also maintain a strong focus on and offer a wide variety of local produce. Two more locations are expected to be added by the end of 2017.
If after one year the pilot program has proven effective, the intention is for Macon County-based nonprofit MountainWise to assume control of the project from the small and locally focused Bountiful Cities. MountainWise would then apply for a Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant, which would potentially fund the project for three years, allowing the organization to expand westward into remote mountain communities hard-hit with food insecurity.
“We are starting small with the intention of being able to get the system going, and so we can start producing some results that we can take to additional funding sources and say, ‘Look, not only has this program shown amazing results across the country, but even right here it is having a strong effect,’” says Hinebaugh. She says that the initiative would love to attract the investment of larger retail grocers like Ingles and Sav-Mor and as well as other smaller outlets such as Hopey & Co., but she understands a business’s reluctance to jump headfirst into a program that has yet to prove its functionality.
“Michigan and their Fair Food Network has done a lot of research on what we can expect locally,” says March, noting that the Detroit pilot program served 3,600 participants, 88 percent of whom reported buying more fruits and veggies, 57 percent of whom bought less junk food, with a total of $16,000 spent on locally grown produce. “We do not expect numbers quite that high; ours is a much, much smaller effort. But you can see that the dollars spent count. This is a very successful model that we are building on here.”