Eat Your View
By Robert Turner
Healthy eating is not easy for any of us in today’s food environment. In fact, some researchers consider our food system to be a “food swamp”—one in which we are surrounded by unhealthy food that is inexpensive, ubiquitous, convenient and engineered to be addictive. Is it any wonder that preventable diet-related disease is our biggest health risk, costing us hundreds of billions of dollars every year in healthcare costs? The causes of diet-related disease are complex and pervasive, and impact everyone. Although the problem affects all segments of society, low-income households are disproportionately impacted and have higher rates of diet-related disease such as diabetes and heart disease. But there is an island of hope in this deepening swamp. Farmers markets offer farm-fresh foods and a social environment that encourages, educates and excites people to eat good food.
Recent research has identified the serious risks to both human health and the environment that are directly related to our modern, industrial food system. These include high obesity rates in children and adults that can be attributed to poor diets of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar processed and fast foods, and not enough healthy, whole foods. But how do we make local, healthy, whole foods more accessible and common to low-income households? Education, access and cost are key factors.
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) is launching a program that does two good things with the same dollar: it encourages healthy eating options for low-income households while it supports local, sustainable farms and farmers. ASAP now has a program called Double SNAP that encourages and incentivizes shopping at farmers markets by participants in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “Food Stamps”) in order to increase the awareness, knowledge and consumption of healthy, whole foods. A secondary benefit would be increasing revenue and income for local growers at the market and for the local economy.
The Double SNAP program gives SNAP users matching funds that double the amount of SNAP dollars they can spend at the farmers market, making healthy whole foods much more attractive in social environments that support healthy eating.
Using an incentive to attract low-income households to the farmers market, ASAP hopes to create the cultural change that may have the greatest long-term impact on everyone’s health. When people see and interact with others involved with and participating in a healthy food movement, the social-psychological benefits and the simple enjoyment of interaction with others at the market play a critical role in changing food patterns and behavior. The market presents many opportunities to connect and learn, which is key to breaking patterns of unhealthy eating habits.
“The social environments of food are a crucial and under-addressed intervention point to increase healthy eating, and farmers markets provide positive social environments that encourage healthy eating,” says ASAP director Charlie Jackson. The Asheville City Market is on the bus route and within walking distance from several low-income housing units. Maps with bus routes to the market are also distributed by ASAP.
Similar options for extending SNAP are available at other markets and small grocers. Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture offers a fruit and vegetable SNAP match, called Double Up Food Bucks in Boone. And MountainWise recently launched Double Up Food Bucks incentives at the Jackson County Farmers Market and the Haywood Historic Market. MountainWise also supports the Double Up program at the French Broad Food Co-op & West Village Market, two Asheville area small grocers. “WNC faces a significant rate of food insecurity that perpetuates inequitable access to health,” says Abby Holmes from MountainWise. “The Double Up Food Bucks program offers a holistic strategy to address this issue.”
RAFI USA offers a Fresh Bucks fruit and vegetable match similar to Double Up at the Morganton and Marion farmers markets and in other locations across the state. The Mills River Farmers Market offers matching SNAP similar to ASAP’s program. You can find all WNC farmers markets that accept SNAP at the ASAP Local Food Guide online at AppalachianGrown.org.
Jackson says that the Asheville City Market is currently offering Double SNAP and they hope to be able to expand the benefit to other markets. At markets, SNAP users run their EBT card (like a debit card) at the main market table and receive wooden tokens in one-dollar increments to use at individual farmer booths and stands that are qualified to accept SNAP. With the Double SNAP program, SNAP users will be offered a one-to-one match for all SNAP tokens they purchase. This year’s funding will come from private donations.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com. Donations to help fund the Double SNAP program can be made directly to ASAP. Learn more at ASAPConnections.org.