A Technological Leap Makes Expanding Healthy Food Incentive Programs Easier

Grocery store stand with fruits and vegetables. Sign on the left side describing the benefits of the EBT pilot program

Photo by Eli Zigas

A few new words on a grocery store receipt may not seem significant. But on March 7, when the cash registers at Harvest Market in Fort Bragg began telling customers about instant rebates they were receiving on fruit and vegetable purchases, those words represented a big milestone for making healthy food incentives more broadly available in California. The instant rebates are provided to participants in Calfresh (the state’s federally funded food assistance benefits program), who earn matching dollars when they buy California-grown fruits and vegetables. Participants’ direct receipt of the rebates into their CalFresh accounts represents the successful launch of the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project, which was authorized by the legislature and governor in 2018. The project set out to develop and test scalable changes to the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system and retailers’ payment processing systems. Those changes mean that select farmers’ markets and grocery stores can now deliver healthy food incentives directly to CalFresh customer accounts.

Because the California Department of Social Services and many companies involved in CalFresh EBT transactions have successfully reprogrammed their systems, CalFresh households can get bonus dollars credited directly to their state-managed food assistance accounts. These households no longer must rely on paper coupons or store-specific loyalty cards. They can now earn matching dollars when they buy produce and have that money deposited into an existing account connected to the debit-like card they already use to pay for food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched a grant program to encourage other states to test this innovation.

When SPUR launched our own healthy food incentive program for CalFresh participants in 2017, with a paper-based coupon program, grocers often asked us why we couldn’t we just credit the bonuses on an EBT card. At the time, we had to explain that California would first have to make some significant upgrades to the state infrastructure for food benefits — as Massachusetts did in 2012. Today, thanks to legislation that SPUR co-sponsored and our work as a California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project partner, a select number of grocers can offer fruit and vegetable incentives using software updates provided by point-of-sale manufacturers involved in the EBT pilot project. And, in the future, it will be easier than it was before for other retailers to work with their point-of-sale providers to make updates to do likewise.

In California, technology is no longer the main obstacle to scaling EBT-integrated healthy food incentive programs. That obstacle now is funding — specifically sufficient funding so more CalFresh participants can access supplemental benefits at more grocery stores and farmers markets.

SPUR is actively working to secure that funding. At the state level, we are proud to co-sponsor, with Nourish California, the bipartisan CalFresh Fruit and Vegetable Supplemental Benefits Expansion (AB 605), co-authored by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, Assemblymember Devon Mathis, and Senator Scott Wiener. And, at the federal level, we are working with a national coalition to seek funding from the federal Farm Bill, which is slated to be reauthorized this year, to support statewide expansion of healthy food incentive programs.

Meanwhile, as those advocacy campaigns play out, more and more customers will be able to earn up to $60 each month when they buy fruits and vegetables and to have that money directly credited to their EBT accounts. They’ll know they’ve gotten those rebates when they read the new lines of text on their receipt. Those few additional words represent the huge potential of the California Fruit and Vegetable EBT Pilot Project to reduce hunger, improve health, and support the agricultural economy.