LAWRENCE — Researchers at the University of Kansas and University of Kansas Medical Center are part of a nearly $6 million grant that aims to help low-income families eat healthy, supporting local farmers and keeping food dollars in the area economy.
The researchers are partnering with the Mid-America Regional Council on “Double Up Food Bucks,” a $2.9 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive matched by $2.9 million from private foundations and local governments. The program will allow SNAP beneficiaries to double every dollar spent on locally grown produce with a dollar-for-dollar match up to $25 per day at participating locations.
Cheryl Gibson, professor of general and geriatric medicine at KU Medical Center, will lead overall evaluation efforts of the program. Susan Harvey, assistant professor of health, sport and exercise science at KU, will lead evaluation efforts within the northeast Kansas region. Over the next three years, the grant will support expanding Double Up Food Bucks from a pilot program with a handful of grocery stores to all Price Chopper stores and four Whole Foods stores in the Kansas City metropolitan area, Schnuck’s stores in the St. Louis area and four independent groceries in eastern Kansas. Double Up Food Bucks program will also expand to 68 farmers markets, including several in rural Kansas and Missouri.
“More than 1.1 million Kansas and Missouri residents rely on federal food assistance through the SNAP program. This nutrition incentive program will help make fruits and vegetables more affordable for low-income families, support local farmers and encourage growth in the local economies,” Gibson said. “Evaluating the DUFB program will provide needed information about how to improve the delivery and redemption of the incentives and learn what strategies are working or need improvement across recipients, stores, markets and farmers.”
Harvey’s role will be evaluating promotional and communication efforts among the farmer’s markets, Double Up Food Bucks program and customers in the northeast Kansas region.
“We want to know how well the farmers markets and grocery stores are promoting the program,” Harvey said. “SNAP participants won’t know about the program if it’s not made visible. We’re also trying to debunk the idea that the only people who go to farmers markets are those who can ‘afford it.’ And we hope to be able to help show what local farms can do for the community.”
Gibson and Harvey will complete environmental assessments of the participating locations, then conduct surveys among customers and interviews with farmers who provide produce at the farmers markets. The goal is to find out what barriers there are in taking part, why people may not be taking part, what could improve the program, whether SNAP participants are in fact eating more fruits and vegetables and if they are learning more about the value of eating more fresh produce.
“We know now that fruits and vegetables are really the missing component in eating healthy for a lot of people,” Harvey said. “So we want to find out what are the barriers and challenges to consuming them. And we want to know what we need to do to reach a broader audience.”
After analyzing regional and aggregate data, Gibson’s group will recommend improvements in outreach to SNAP participants as well as making the program better for grocery stores and farmers markets as well, during each year of the grant process.
Double Up Food Bucks was created by Fair Food Network in 2009 and began at five farmers markets in Detroit. It expanded to more than 150 sites across Michigan and is now spreading to communities across the country.
In addition to evaluating outreach and making recommendations for improvements, KU researchers will author publications and make presentations about the challenges, successes and benefits of the program. The key, Harvey said, is helping low-income families eat more fruits and vegetables, helping children develop healthy eating habits early and helping local farmers sell more produce.
“We know this program works, but we want to know how it can best work in our area,” she said. “I think it’s something we could learn more about each year as more vendors take part. This program helps not only SNAP beneficiaries but small farmers as well. We’re supporting our local food systems, too. This is a two-way street.”