The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just gave a big shot in the arm to healthy food incentive programs. On April 1, the agency announced $31 million in grants to groups large and small – including three recipients in California – that provide matching dollars to low-income families who use their food assistance benefits to buy fruits and vegetables.
The largest award here in California is $3.7 million to support the expansion of the Market Match program. Begun in 2009 by Roots of Change and now coordinated by the Ecology Center, the Market Match program currently operates at 150 markets across the state. The program works by providing a dollar-for-dollar match for produced purchased at a famers’ market with food assistance dollars. For example, when an individual spends $10 of their CalFresh benefits (formerly known as food stamps) at a participating farmers’ market, the program provides them with an additional $10 to spend at the market. The new grant funding will allow the Ecology Center and its partners to expand to 230 retail outlets, including farm stands, mobile markets and farm-box subscriptions (known as CSAs) and test out new technology to lower the administrative costs of the program.
The USDA’s grants, which are the first round of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program, recognize that healthy food incentive programs are effective. As we highlighted in our recent report Healthy Food Within Reach, initial evaluations from pilots in multiple locations demonstrate that by making food more affordable, these programs help reduce food insecurity and increase consumption of fruits and vegetables. And, when they are offered in the context of farmers’ markets, they increase revenue for local farmers, helping strengthen the regional food system.
The grants are supporting a wide range of healthy food incentive programs. They will fund an expansion of pioneering grocery store pilots in Michigan, a new collaboration between the State of Washington’s Health Department and 168 Safeway stores, and a pilot in Oakland that will partner with an existing gift card system for food businesses. The USDA will soon gain even more information about the advantages and disadvantages of the various program designs, because all 31 grantees are required to participate in program evaluations.
In addition to the Market Match program, the USDA also awarded grants to Mandela Marketplace in Oakland and the Yolo County Department of Employment and Social Services. The infusion of funding helps bolster the case for the proposed California Nutrition Incentives Act (AB 1321) which was recently introduced in Sacramento by Assembly Member Phil Ting. The bill would formally establish a framework for state agencies to administer grants for healthy food incentive programs. SPUR supports this legislation because it would help institutionalize these programs at the state level and provide a framework for a pilot in grocery stores.
The federal grants will promote the expansion of healthy food incentives and experimentation with them. They will also result in valuable data on how to ensure these programs do the most to decrease hunger, improve health and support regional food systems. One thing the grants won’t do, however, is provide long-term stable funding for healthy food incentive programs. And as California moves forward with programs and legislation, SPUR will be working with partners to explore how to secure that financial sustainability.