Healthy incentives are farm bill bright spot

In the middle of the farm bill to be voted on by the House on Wednesday, there is a brief section that gives people like me—a former farmer, scientist, philanthropist and a passionate advocate for healthy food—reason for hope.
 
Mind you, rare is the sentence these days that includes both “farm bill” and “hope,” given that passage is unfortunately two years behind schedule, delayed, most say, by the partisanship that has hamstrung Washington.
 

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But Congress should pass this farm bill.
 
In plain speak, the section creates the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program expanding projects to increase the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets.
 
Don’t let the simplicity of the idea fool you about its potential. I believe it has the power to remake federal nutrition assistance. The concept in various forms has been tested in more than 25 states. Farm bill passage would allow it to be expanded across the nation.
 
It’s earned support from both sides of the aisle for the obvious reason that it’s good for families—both for the families who grow our food, and for the families who continue to struggle in the wake of the Great Recession.
 
Our organization, Fair Food Network, pioneered the first of these programs to be implemented across an entire state. We started “Double Up Food Bucks” in 2009 at five farmers markets in Detroit. Last summer, Double Up incentives were used in more than 100 markets across Michigan, and we piloted an expansion into grocery stores.
 
Here’s how it works: recipients of food stamps—also known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—show their benefits cards at local famers markets. For every dollar spent at the market, they receive an equal amount in tokens to be redeemed for Michigan produce, up to $20 per visit.
 
It’s precisely the kind of inventive partnership that voters are demanding from their government. And it’s proven.
 
Double-up programs grow local food economies by encouraging purchases from local producers. In a 2012 survey of the program, 83 percent of participating farmers said they made more money at farmers markets with Double Up Food Bucks.
 
Second, they improve access to, and the affordability of, fresh fruits and vegetables for low-income families. More than three-quarters of SNAP users said the program helped increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they consume. Just an important, nearly 90 percent said they used benefits on fewer low-nutrition or high-fat snacks as a result of Double Up Food Bucks.
 
By several measures, Michigan is among the top states in the nation for use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets.
 
Boosting the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed by vulnerable populations is critical. These are the very same people who are disproportionately likely to suffer from type-2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. And how is that treatment for those diseases paid for? Often with Medicaid or Medicare.
 
With incentive programs like those supported by the farm bill, we can begin to turn SNAP from strictly an anti-hunger program into an anti-hunger and pro-health program. We can quite literally pay the farmer now, instead of the doctor later.
 
I understand why my friends worry that the farm bill reduces SNAP spending too much. But this is the best chance we have of protecting the integrity of this program, which is critical to the food security of low-income Americans.
 
Our representatives in Congress cannot sidestep their duty to the nation. This farm bill limits some of the egregious payments to rich, corporate farms that should have been done away with long ago. Many of the likely provisions promote healthy food systems in unprecedented ways.
 
It can also begin to shift public policy to make future federal nutrition programs simultaneously support individual health and a more sustainable food system.
 
It’s no accident that our organization is based in Michigan. The Midwest is a practical region. We care for our neighbors, and we support solutions that work. Healthy food incentives like Double Up Food Bucks do both.
 
I have hope that we can improve our nation’s nutrition assistance to better serve both farmers and those in need. Congress should pass the farm bill and bring us closer to that reality.
 
Hesterman is author of “Fair Food” and the president and CEO of the Fair Food Network.