The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates 40 million people live in neighborhoods without access to fresh, affordable and nutritious food options, making them “food insecure.” Residents of these communities typically rely on fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer little to no fresh food.
Inspired by Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI), which began in 2004, many states and cities are now pursuing food financing programs to help alleviate food insecurity. The federal Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), which started in 2010, has been critical to launching many of these programs. The initiative expands access to nutritious food in underserved communities through strategic partnerships with grocery stores, small retailers, corner stores and farmers’ markets, to equip them with the necessary tools to provide healthy food and step towards health equity.
Other healthy food access programs leading the way include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks. SNAP is a program that helps millions of individuals and families with low incomes buy groceries. Financial incentives such as Double Up Food Bucks, which doubles the value of SNAP benefits spent at participating markets and grocery stores, encourage SNAP participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables, boosting local economies.
Driving Change in Arizona
Recently, nonprofit Pinnacle Prevention secured state funding to expand the Double Up Food Bucks into Arizona. This program doubles the value of SNAP benefits when they are used to buy Arizona-grown fruits and vegetables.
So, for every dollar someone spends using SNAP benefits at a participating farmer’s market, they will earn a free dollar from Double Up to spend on Arizona-grown produce, up to $20 per day. Farm Express, which launched in 2014 with the support of Pinnacle Prevention, is one initiative that uses Double Up AZ. This community-run mobile produce market provides access to high-quality, affordable produce for residents with little to no access to healthy food in Arizona’s Phoenix and Tempe regions.
Elyse Guidas, Executive Director of Farm Express, emphasized that the organization is “truly rooted in the community – from our customers to our employees.”
“We continue to hear how our incentive programs change how families eat, especially at the end of the month when they are pushing pennies,” Guidas said. “When I get a chance to watch a kid try a new fruit for the first time, I know we are doing something good.”
When asked about the future of Farm Express, Guidas reflected, “Our goal is to continue to grow our emphasis on buying locally sourced food, while growing our operation to ensure that cost is no longer a barrier to healthy living.”
Building Relationships for Success in Massachusetts
The Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA) successfully secured $1.1 million in capital funding and operating dollars, in each of the last two fiscal years, to help implement the Massachusetts Food Trust Program (MFTP).
MFTP provides loans, grants, and technical assistance to support new and expanded healthy food retailers and local food enterprises in low- and moderate-income communities. MPHA credits its relationships with local coalitions, the state government and national partners, as key to this campaign’s success.
“Relationships are always at the core of MPHA’s campaign work,” said Kristina Kimani, Coalition & Advocacy Manager of MPHA, “and in this case, the relationships that MPHA has nurtured over the last six years culminated at a critical moment in the campaign to overcome what could have been a significant obstacle.”
Where MPHA lacked specific experience around the financing and internal structure of a healthy food financing program, it called upon national experts, including food advocacy experts at The Food Trust based in Philadelphia, with experience administering these programs in other states. MPHA also engaged the community through its Healthy Food Financing Working Group, which has remained strong and active over the past six years.
The association garnered the support of more than 70 organizations and 200 individual advocates. MPHA will continue to inform and mobilize its network of community residents, local and state governments, and community organizations, capitalizing on the MFTP.
Community Leads the Charge in Louisiana
Together Baton Rouge, a coalition of congregations and community-based organizations, recently secured three years of funding, totaling $1.5 million, to start the East Baton Rouge fresh food financing initiative in Louisiana. Nearly 100,000 residents in East Baton Rouge Parish – about 20 percent of the parish population – live in “grocery gap” neighborhoods, or neighborhoods with limited access to healthy food retailers.
“Our campaign is truly driven by residents from these communities,” said Broderick Bagert, Lead Organizer of Together Baton Rouge. “We see real grassroots leadership from the communities most affected.”
Bagert noted that the key to the campaign’s success was a “never-say-die” spirit and an underlying sense of dignity, passion and purpose that drove the community’s neighborhoods to fight for access to healthy foods. “There is no substitute for a recognized, organized constituency with the desire for change,” he emphasized.
Bagert also stressed the importance of understanding the complex support infrastructure behind the retail market in well-served areas – developers who know the landscape, companies that handle permitting, political backing and more. Together Baton Rouge utilizes its partnerships to help navigate the existing market, working to create permanent solutions in these underserved areas.
“We are working to fix the fundamental ways in which our local economy is set up, and this is no small task,” Bagert said.
Joining Forces in Mississippi
Southern Institute for Public Life (SIPL) partnered with Working Together Jackson in Mississippi to campaign for fresh food financing in the city of Jackson. While Jackson is currently experiencing a budget crisis and the city has not yet funded an official program, this campaign successfully built widespread support for future fresh food financing.
SIPL worked with leadership within 40 member institutions of Working Together Jackson – 30 of which are located in low- and moderate-income communities – to develop key relationships with state, local and county officials. Additionally, SIPL fostered valuable relationships with member institutions and other ally organizations to expand its expertise and knowledge base about healthy food financing advocacy.
“This kind of work is difficult, but not impossible,” Perry noted. “If you develop the relationships and make the case with the right people, you can really make progress.”
Recently, SIPL began working with business leaders to develop new markets for fresh foods with a focus on minority-owned farms, as it continues to support initiatives in the Jackson area.
Increasing Access to Healthy Foods in Your Own Community
These are just a few examples of communities that are taking action to address food insecurity across the nation. Overall, healthier communities create stronger economies, and research shows that the presence of a healthy food retailer improves access to healthy foods, promotes healthy eating, creates jobs and stimulates additional investment.