GRAND RAPIDS — When officials at local farmers markets signed on with a program aimed at improving access to healthy foods while boosting the West Michigan agricultural economy, they had no idea what they were in for.
In its first year as a true statewide program, the Double Up Food Bucks program sponsored by the Ann Arbor-based Fair Food Network has proven more successful here than nearly anywhere else in the state.
Begun in 2009 with five farmers markets in the Detroit area, the program offers recipients of the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamp program, double the purchasing power for up to $20 worth of Michigan-grown fresh fruits and vegetables when purchased at local farmers markets.
The program offers those who qualify up to $20 in matching tokens to pay for fresh, healthy foods, funded through grants and donations from private companies and foundations. The project is aimed at improving access to healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and helping to reduce the risk of diet-related chronic illness.
“We were overwhelmed literally and figuratively by the response that we had to this program,” said Christine Helms-Maletic, Fulton Street Farmers Market development project manager. “It was extremely successful.
“We had to scramble to get volunteers in there to man those machines that give out the tokens.”
Statistics for last year show the five participating farmers markets in Kent County racking up 8,750 transactions under the program, with combined sales under Double Up Food Bucks reaching $136,062.
That compares to the 10,297 transactions and $159,060 in sales at Detroit’s Eastern Market. Marcia Rapp, vice president of programs at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the program’s largest West Michigan supporter, said the organization is pleased with the results of its $150,000 in backing last year.
“We’ve been seeing reports coming out comparing ourselves to the Eastern Market in Detroit where it was wildly successful among farmers, growers and users,” Rapp said. “We’re almost neck-and-neck in numbers and you have to consider we have a much smaller population here.
“We’ve had a really good acceptance from the local growers, too,” Rapp added. “It’s new but they’re seeing the benefits and more and more are signing up each week.”
Melissa Harrington, manager at Fulton Street Farmers market, said counterparts at four other markets in Kent County also enjoyed the program’s success. He said the program created awareness for the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids’ inaugural farmers market last year and helped publicize the Plainfield Township’s market acceptance of Bridge Cards for the first time.
“It increased exponentially both the awareness that we accept Bridge Cards and accessibility for low-income customers to nutritious, healthy foods.” Harrington said. “Everybody said it was very successful and I don’t think any of us anticipated how successful it actually was.”
The program has now spread to 54 markets in places like Menominee, Battle Creek, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Flint, Bay City and Kalamazoo. Rachel Chadderdon Bair, program manager for Fair Food Network, said her group has funding for the program through 2013 but hopes to extend it or sway policy makers to address issues of accessibility to healthy foods in future legislation.
“We have funding for two more market seasons, but we’re always seeking funds to bolster the program and extend it,” Chadderdon Bair said. “We’re actively involved with trying to shape the next farm bill and hope there will be a healthy food incentive built into food assistance programs in the future.”