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The new Double Up Food Bucks Program will match each SNAP dollar spent at Farmers’ Market with an additional dollar for fresh fruits and vegetables, allowing low-income households to spend $10 SNAP (federal food assistance) and go home with $20 worth of healthy, local food every Saturday morning.

First piloted in Detroit, MI in 2009, Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB) is a healthy-eating incentive program to help households on limited income buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local growers at farmers’ markets and in certain grocery stores. Over the past eight years, the program has been shown to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and farmers’ sales in 150+ markets across the country. This season, Dubuque is one of six cities piloting Double Up with support from the World Food Prize Foundation, Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, and local sponsors in the hopes of improving health equity, and attracting additional support through a newly expanded USDA nutrition grant program.

Public health and agriculture: connecting the dots
Despite the fact that over 30 million acres of Iowa’s land is dedicated to agriculture, according to Gallop-Healthways Wellbeing Index, Iowa now ranks dead last – 50th out of 50 states in fruit and vegetable consumption. Obesity, having steadily increased each year from 12% in 1990 is now characteristic of nearly 1/3 of Dubuque County residents, and has been identified as a top concern in the County’s 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment.

While it’s true that diet-related illnesses like obesity affect people of all backgrounds, income is the social determinant of health most strongly linked with being at-risk in Iowa. Simply put: the less money you make, the more likely you are to develop a diet-related illness. According to data collected by the Inclusive Dubuque Health Equity working group, rates of obesity, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke are all more common for those who make $15,000 or less, with prevalence of diet-related disease decreasing as income increases.

Why is poverty linked to obesity?
In part, this trend has to do with the affordability and accessibility of healthy food relative to the affordability and accessibility of highly processed and less healthy “fringe” or processed foods. Recent Inclusive Dubuque polls reveal that while 76.21% of respondents believe that fresh and healthy food is accessible in Dubuque, 57% do not believe it is affordable.

Over the long term, which foods are made affordable is steered by a myriad of factors, not the least of which is agricultural policy – most notably, programs funded through The Farm Bill, a piece of federal legislation authorized by congress every five years.

Popularly associated with agricultural subsidies, crop insurance, and other commodity and conservation programs, many of the programs funded through the last several decades of Farm Bills have incentivized U.S. farmers to increase production of the kind of commodities – corn, wheat, cotton, rice, milk, and soybeans – that lend themselves to large-scale production, easy storage, and long-distance shipping. Despite the fact that the USDA Dietary Recommendations suggest about half of a person’s daily calories come from fruits and vegetables, few Farm Bill programs by comparison have supported regional production and distribution systems for fresh produce. Today, over 80% of the food consumed in Iowa travels on average 1,500 miles from farm to plate, with California, now in the midst of a five year drought, being the nation’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables.

While many of the programs funded through the 2014 Farm Bill continue to support the production of commodity crops like corn and soybeans, it is worth noting that of the 12 programs supported by Farm Bill funding, Nutrition spending makes up 80% or $391 billion of the $489 billion dollar budget. Of the programs covered by Nutrition, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps) accounts for 95% of all spending, about $377 billion dollars.

Alleviating hunger is not always the same as providing nourishment
While the SNAP program has proven an effective anti-hunger program, providing emergency food resources to thousands of households across the country, including more than 5,000 recipients in Dubuque County during the month of May 2016 (amounting to over $600,000 in Dubuque alone), it has not proven as effective in increasing nutrition among low-income households.

A look at the numbers
In 2015 the average household of one in the U.S. received $143 in SNAP benefits per month, while the average household of four received $459. According to the Iowa Policy Project’s Cost of Living budgets for Dubuque in 2016, the average monthly food expense for a single individual is estimated to be $270, and $787 for a family of four with one or two parents working – leaving a monthly gap of $127 and $328, respectively. Faced with a number of other non-negotiable expenses, such as rent and utilities, healthcare, and childcare, this leaves a healthy diet feeling like an unattainable luxury for many SNAP participants without additional resources.

Recognizing the success of privately funded Double Up Food Bucks programs at markets in Michigan, New Mexico, and several other cities across the U.S., in 2014 the USDA allocated $100 million of Farm Bill funding over five years (2014-2018) toward a new program called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives Program (FINI). This FINI grant program is making matching funds available to organizations implementing projects that encourage SNAP recipients to purchase fruits and vegetables by reducing their cost – including Double Up Food Bucks programs at farmers’ markets and grocery stores.

How can we use this new resource to reduce prevalence of diet-related disease in Dubuque?
In July, under the leadership of Iowa Healthiest State Initiative, Dubuque Farmers’ Market partnered with five other Iowa markets – Iowa City, Des Moines, Winneshiek, Perry, and Spencer, IA – to launch a coordinated statewide DUFB pilot program. With initial pilot program dollars provided by The World Food Prize Foundation and a $1,500 local donation from the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, these markets will work together to implement the program, aggregate data, and submit a joint application for a federal FINI grant. Together, the network will be eligible for up to 500,000 federal dollars, depending on local and state dollars raised as a local match for the program.

While no single project will fully resolve the epidemic of obesity, or transform the agricultural landscape to be more supportive of human health, programs like the Double Up Food Bucks help to address several important issues simultaneously: it helps families most at risk for diet-related disease overcome cost barriers to healthy fruits and vegetables and supports small and medium sized family farms, creating local jobs and adding biodiversity to the Iowa landscape.

Community support needed
Last year, Dubuque Farmers’ Market was the first in Iowa to implement the Market Money Program – a centralized system for exchanging SNAP dollars (deployed in the form of an Electronic Benefits card) into tokens which could be redeemed at over 50 market booths. In the first year of Market Money, about $4,500 SNAP dollars were spent at Farmers’ Market. Organizers are hopeful to increase that number this year, and are in need of additional local dollars to complete the 2016 pilot program and secure a federal match for the 2017-2018 market seasons.

For more information on sponsorship opportunities, contact Dubuque Main Street or visit DubuqueFarmersMarket.org/ebt-snap-programs.

Help spread the word!
Additional support is also needed to get the word out about Double Up Food Bucks to eligible households. Promotional materials, including flyers and postcards about the program, are available to download at DubuqueFarmersMarket.org, and speakers from ISU Extension & Outreach, and Dubuque Farmers’ Market are available to talk with various groups to introduce the Farmers’ Market, and details about the program.

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Carolyn Scherf

Carolyn Scherf is the Local Food Coordinator with Dubuque County ISU Extension & Outreach where she works to maximize the potential for community-based, economically vibrant, environmentally, and socially responsible food enterprises by providing research-based education, and facilitating partnerships throughout Iowa and the Driftless Region.

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