How 'Double Bucks' For Food Stamps Conquered Capitol Hill : The Salt The federal government is putting $100 million behind a simple idea: doubling the value of federal food benefits when people use them to buy fresh produce. This idea started small but became a hit.

How 'Double Bucks' For Food Stamps Conquered Capitol Hill

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The federal government is about to put a hundred million dollars behind a simple idea - double the value of SNAP benefits - what used to be called food stamps - when people use them to buy local fruits and vegetables.

MIKE APPELL: It's so simple, but it has such profound effects, both for SNAP recipients and for local farmers.

SIEGEL: That's Mike Appell, who sells his produce at a market in Tulsa, Oklahoma. NPR's Dan Charles tells us, it's an idea that's been ten years in the making.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The idea seems to have surfaced first in 2005, when the New York City Health Department wanted to get people to eat more fresh produce.

CANDACE YOUNG: I think we were trying to confront the perception that healthier produce - fresh fruits and vegetables - are not affordable.

CHARLES: Candace Young was the director of the department's nutrition programming at the time. She says, somebody pointed out that a lot of SNAP recipients do live near farmers markets.

YOUNG: And we thought, well, how about we incentivize them to use their SNAP benefits at these farmers markets?

CHARLES: The city made a few thousand dollars available. So at a few markets, when somebody spent 10 SNAP dollars, they automatically got another $4 - courtesy of the city - to buy more veggies. This desire to make farmers markets more food-stamp-friendly seems to have been floating in the air at the time. A farmers market in Lynn, Massachusetts, was trying to the similar. And then, in 2007, the idea mutated into a form that really caught on.

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CHARLES: It happened with the birth of this market - the Crossroads Farmers Market in Maryland. It's just a line of tents and, today, a trumpet player alongside a big road that divides the towns of Langley Park and Takoma Park. We're near Washington, D.C., but you won't find many lawyers and lobbyists in this crowd. Michelle Dudley is the market manager.

MICHELLE DUDLEY: A lot of Latinos come to this market. I would say about 70 percent of our customers are Spanish-speaking. But we also see folks from the Caribbean, folks from West Africa.

CHARLES: Back in 2007, a man named John Hyde was dreaming of a farmers market in this neighborhood.

GUS SCHUMACHER: And then realized that these people do not have a lot of money.

CHARLES: That's Hyde's friend and collaborator Gus Schumacher, a former top official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hyde can't tell the story himself, unfortunately. He died a few years ago. Hyde and Schumacher got to talking about this money problem. And they said what if we could double the value of food stamps at this market? We would need to get the money somewhere.

SCHUMACHER: So I asked the National Watermelon Association if they would provide a small stipend. They were very generous. They provided $5,000.

CHARLES: This is how it's worked ever since. SNAP recipients come up to a table at this market, and they tell Rosie Sanchez how much money they want to spend from their SNAP benefits. Sanchez of swipes their SNAP card and gives them wooden tokens to spend. But she actually gives them twice the amount that they took from their SNAP benefits - up to $15 more. Rosie Sanchez and her family rely on this program themselves.

ROSIE SANCHEZ: This is very important, but you know why? Because I get up to $15 for free, so I have $30 every week. With my $30, I'm able to buy fresh, local. It's not expensive. It's the best.

CHARLES: Gus Schumacher loved this program from the start. The same year this market started, he cofounded an organization called Wholesome Wave, which has since brought this idea of doubling SNAP benefits to farmers markets from Connecticut to California. Private foundations were happy to contribute because they realized their dollars could do several things at once - ease poverty, promote better health and boost the local farm economy. In Michigan, a food activist named Oren Hesterman set up the Fair Food Network. He called the idea Double Up Food Bucks and got it working in more than a hundred places across the state.

OREN HESTERMAN: We wanted to take it from the seed of an idea into a demonstration - that this is something you could do at scale.

CHARLES: Hesterman was thinking big. He wanted to sell this idea to the government. He invited one of Michigan's Senators, Debbie Stabenow, to see Double Up Food Bucks for herself. And last year, Stabenow, who chairs the Senate's Agriculture Committee, proposed including it in the so-called farm bill.

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SENATOR DEBBIE STABENOW: One of the things in this bill is an incentive program based on a successful program in Michigan called Double Up Bucks.

CHARLES: On the other side of Capitol Hill, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Republican Frank Lucas from Oklahoma, was hearing about this idea, too. Farmer Mike Appell had brought Double Up Food Bucks to the Cherry Street farmers market in Tulsa and talked about it to a member of Congressman Lucas' staff.

APPELL: It didn't seem like it required much of a sell. They seemed to be on board with it. I forget his exact words, but, you know, if this is supporting farmers, we want - we want to be behind.

CHARLES: Earlier this year, the farm bill passed with a hundred million dollars to be spent over the next five years to boost SNAP dollars when they're spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. Those taxpayer dollars have to be matched by private funding, so altogether, it could add up to $200 million. That's a huge increase - maybe 10 times what these programs spend right now. So small programs are applying for funding to expand, and Michigan's Fair Food Network - one of the biggest - is even moving beyond farmers markets. It's working with supermarket chains to see if SNAP recipients can double their dollars for fresh produce every day and all year round. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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