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Bay Area Pilot Program Makes Produce Less Costly For Low-Income Families

  

For low-income families, the cost of produce is one big barrier to food access. 

Two hundred and fifty farmers markets across California currently participate in Market Match programs to help CalFresh recipients stretch their budget by giving a penny-for-penny match on produce. 

Now, for the first time in California, the same concept is being tested with California-grown produce at the supermarket. 

Eli Zigas is the Food and Agriculture Policy Director with SPUR, a Bay Area non-profit in the urban planning sector. He lauds the work of Market Match and hopes to see them grow at farmers markets across the state. 

But Zigas also points out that eighty-four percent of CalFresh purchases are made at big-box stores and super markets. In contract, less than one percent of CalFresh purchases are made at farmers markets.

Given that, SPUR decided to design a food access pilot to meet low-income shoppers where they buy the bulk of their food. In other words, at the grocery store.

"All Americans but especially low-income Americans face an economic barrier to make a healthy choice,” explains Zigas. “Sometimes fruits and vegetables are expensive. And Double Up Food Bucks makes California grown fruits and vegetables less expensive and makes it easier to make a healthy choice."

Linking this incentive program with California-grown produce is the twist that makes this pilot the first of its kind in a super market setting. 

Here’s how Double Up Food Bucks works. When a CalFresh recipients use their benefits to buy California-grown fruits and veggies the store register will crank out a coupon. That coupon is a penny-for-penny match that CalFresh recipients can spend on any produce on their next shopping trip -- up to $10 in value.

The program is funded by a food insecurity grant from the USDA and it's being piloted at three grocery stores in San Jose and Gilroy in Santa Clara County.

Eli Zigas says the aim is to reach two thousand CalFresh households over the course of 2017. He says if the supermarkets see sales rise during the pilot then it will be a win-win.

“This could show a way that we can increase access to healthy food and do it in an economic way,” says Zigas.

SPUR will use data from the pilot to sketch out the potential cost (and technical hurdles) of scaling a healthy foods incentive program statewide.

There are multiple barriers to food access including cost, geographic location of super markets and food literacy.

Zigas points out Americans of all kinds, both high-income and low-income, spend a significant portion of their food budget on processed food. That's not the healthiest option, especially when it's not consumed in moderation. 

Food literacy and the proximity of grocery stores are two other big factors that contribute to food insecurity. 

Addressing cost through incentive programs is one strategy to address one discrete piece of the complex issue of food access.

Double Up Food Bucks offers a carrot, literally, rather than a stick.

"We know, as it is, people have a hard enough time making ends meet and dealing with food insecurity," says Zigas. "I don't think that further restricting what they can purchase will solve the problem."