Who doesn’t like a two-for-one deal — especially one that extends beyond the shopper into the economy?
Community, social service, health and food-industry organizations in Hawaii are certainly sold on the concept, as it applies to the Double Up Food Bucks program, which helps needy families stretch their government assistance while increasing their access to fresh, local food.
Advocates are backing a bill before the Legislature to provide state money to bolster the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP. The money would go toward Double Up, which doubles the value of benefits used to purchase locally produced foods. Ten dollars of SNAP benefits, for instance, would buy $20 worth of food.
As of Tuesday, the bill had passed both houses of the Legislature and was being heard in conference committee to hash out the amount of funding. If conferees meet a deadline of Friday, the bill goes to the governor’s desk.
“This program would help democratize access to healthy food,” said Daniela Kittinger, director of the Hunger Action Network at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, one of the supporters of the bill.
More than 160,000 Hawaii residents receive SNAP benefits, amounting to about $470 million in benefits. If some of those dollars are spent on locally produced food, that money stays in Hawaii.
“It would be a triple win, for families who get to eat healthy foods, for farmers who get an economic boost, and for the local economy to thrive,” said Kirsten Frost Albrecht, executive director of the Food Basket, Hawaii island’s food bank. “Double Up programs are stimulating for local communities.”
COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS already are offering their own Double Up programs, working largely through farmers markets and backed with private funds.
At farmers markets run by the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center, SNAP recipients can double up to $40 of what they spend on local produce, meats, fish, eggs, low-fat dairy, poi, paiai and honey. Most of what’s sold at these markets is grown and raised in the Leeward area.
In the Waianae ZIP code, from Nanakuli to Kaena Point, 33% of households receive public assistance, the highest number in Hawaii, according to the state.
“It’s been amazing,” said Alicia Higa, the center’s director of health promotion. “In 2008, our Waianae farmers market had 10 vendors and 200 customers. In 2013, when we doubled $10 in benefits during our pilot program, there were more than 20 vendors and 600 customers. Each year, we saw increases, so we kept seeking funding to increase our program. Now, we’re looking at 35 to 40 vendors and 1,200 customers. Last year, we doubled $90,000 in benefits, so there was $180,000 worth of purchases from within our community. This year, we’re on track to doubling $115,000 in benefits that were directly for farm products.”
CUSTOMER MELODY BELL said the Double Up program enables her to buy more fresh and healthful food, while supporting local food producers. “You can usually get enough food for two weeks if you’re mindful in your purchases,” she said. “My family buys produce, poi, honey, eggs, meats — we do all of it.”
The increase in sales has helped farm vendors’ as well.
“During the first and second weeks of the month, I have higher sales,” said Benjie Yogayog of Torbillera Greens, referring to the time period when when most SNAP sales occur. Yogayog runs a 3-acre farm in Kunia that grows long beans, okra, eggplant, green onions, shallots, cilantro and sweet potatoes. “It helps a lot. I have money to save for equipment and plan for the future. I can consider expanding.”
SNAP recipients can also use Double Up to buy a MA‘O Organic Farms community-supported agriculture box, or CSA box, as well as a CSA butcher box of protein. CSAs are subscription-type systems in which customers pay ahead for food, providing local farmers with steady income to produce the food.
In Wahiawa, the Blue Zones Project has established a CSA program for about 40 families, with help from community partners. If state funding comes through, the program would be expanded to include a Double Up CSA.
“There are 2,500 SNAP households in the area. If we could get pickups established at schools, kids could grab their (CSA) bags before they go home. That would make it real easy,” said Jeff Alameida, Blue Zone Project Wahiawa’s community program manager.
The additional funding would help community organizations leverage their budgets to expand services, he said — “They could use resources to start up a mobile market, for instance.”
A POWERFUL aspect of dedicated state funding to the Double Up effort is that another federal program — Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives, or FINI — could match whatever the state puts in. Eleven states across the country run state-funded Double Up programs, and so far every one that has applied for a FINI grant has received one, said Kittinger of the Hunger Action Network.
Sustainable Molokai began a Double Up mobile market in September, using FINI funding it applied for and received on its own.
The organization aggregates products from farmers, ranchers and shrimp farmers who post items, prices and quantities on a website; customers shop online and orders are dropped off at specific locations. A pop-up farmers market sells additional products.
Executive director Harmonee Williams said the Double Up program is reaching an increasing number of SNAP customers, who account for 20% to 25% of sales.
Williams backs the state bill, which would enable the organization to extend Double Up. As it stands, she said, “the program ends when the grant money is gone. It will last about two years from this point.”
ONE OF the key principles of Double Up is that each community can decide how to best to implement the program.
On the Big Island, the Food Basket launched its Double Up program in 2014 with “Da Box,” a CSA subscription financed with a private grant. SNAP recipients pay for the first two boxes, then receive two boxes free at the end of the month when benefits may be low. The organization also makes Double Up available at “Da Bus,” a mobile market that serves 12 “food deserts,” low-income areas with little access to fresh food.
And now, in partnership with KTA Superstores, the Food Basket has crossed into a new horizon of Double Up initiatives: the grocery store. Executive Director Albrecht said many low-income parents, working two and three jobs, are too busy to make the specific times of mobile markets, farmers markets or CSA pickups, so the grocery store is the only way to reach them.
“Da Bux,” launched with a four-month pilot in Hilo, is now in every KTA market on the Big Island.
“We’ve seen up to 43% increases in purchases of Hawaii-island grown produce with Da Bux at all seven KTA stores,” said Albrecht.
KTA devised a barcode sticker, attached to EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, to make shopping convenient for SNAP customers. Cashiers simply scan the sticker and customers receive half off their eligible purchases right at the register.
“KTA is the first to do this, and we’re getting inquiries from around the nation,” said Albrecht. “They’re total rock stars in the Double Up Food Bucks world.”
Toby Taniguchi, KTA president and chief operating officer, also sits on the Food Basket board; his father, Barry, KTA’s chief executive officer, helped start the food bank in 1989.
“We want to do everything possible to help get nutritious food out to the community,” Toby Taniguchi said. “Overall, it’s a great program, and the response has been really positive.”
Albrect isn’t surprised.
“People totally want access to fresh fruits and vegetables, especially parents who want the best for their kids,” she said. “It’s exciting watching people change their eating habits and impacting their health, because people often can’t afford more than rice and canned meat. From a public health perspective, that’s huge.”