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It’s a Win-Win

Oran Hesterman still remembers receiving the touching email from the single mother of three.

The young woman wrote him to share how when she was a child, she and her mother would can and freeze vegetables for the winter. But sadly, she wasn’t about to share that experience with her own children. Out of work and struggling to pay the bills, she simply could not afford to buy produce.

That is, until she signed up for “Double Up Food Bucks,” a program run by Hesterman’s Fair Food Network.
Double Up Food Bucks works by matching purchases residents make with SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets (SNAP is the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps). The Food Bucks effectively double the amount of money participants can spend on fresh, locally-grown produce. 
The Detroit-based program aims to improve access to and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables for SNAP participants, who often live in communities where healthy foods aren’t easily available. 
It’s particularly important in the Motor City. While most major cities have at least some neighborhoods that lack fresh and affordable food, Detroit is particularly hard-pressed, as no national grocery store chain currently operates a location in the city (although there regional and independently-run stores).
The lack of major grocery stores means that many Detroit residents rely on corner markets to buy their food, and most of those lack fresh produce. When fruits and vegetables are available, they can be expensive for low-income residents.
Helping these residents is the goal of Double Up Food Bucks, which launched at five farmers’ markets in September 2009. It has since expanded to cities throughout Michigan, operating at more than 50 farmers’ markets and reaching thousands of residents.
A former organic farmer, Hesterman was inspired to launch Double Up Food Bucks because of similar efforts he undertook during his 15-year stint overseeing local food system programs for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. In 2005, the foundation offered a small grant to match the dollars SNAP participants could spend at one farmers’ market in Takoma Park, Md.
The pilot program was a big success, inspiring similar efforts in other cities. When Hesterman joined the Fair Food Network, he thought it also could work in Detroit.
Promoting the program was a key part of ensuring its success. Fair Food Network partnered with the Michigan Nutrition Network and Michigan Department of Human Services to spread the word about Double Up Food Bucks.
Every SNAP participant received a postcard in the mail about the program, 60-second radio ads were aired in major Michigan markets and organizers worked on a grassroots level, including by hanging promotional posters in beauty salons, barber shops and churches.
The interest was intense. “Every time we sent one of those postcards out, for the next week our phones ran off the hook here,” Hesterman says.
All that interest led to profits. Food stamp sales at farmers’ markets grew from $16,000 in 2007 to $705,969 in 2010. With the matching money, food stamp beneficiaries spent more than $1.2 million at farmers markets in 2011 —which is helping local farmers survive during the economic downturn.
The Fair Food Network is now looking to expand the program into Detroit’s locally-run grocery stores, and hopes to have the incentive-based program included in the farm bill reauthorization. “This is a very effective way to use their money,” Hesterman argues. 
Which brings us back to the young woman, who used her SNAP benefits and Double Up Food Bucks to buy vegetables to freeze, ensuring her three kids can eat fruits and veggies in the cold winter months.
“She just said, ‘You’re offering me an opportunity I wouldn’t otherwise have had,” Hesterman recalls.