A program started last year to make locally-produced fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable for low-income St. Louisans is planning to expand into area grocery stores.
The Double Up Food Bucks program, formerly SNAP 2 It, matches up to $25 EBT dollars that recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) spend on locally-produced fruits and vegetables. That allows people to purchase healthier foods.
“Lots of times, they are kind of like, ‘What’s the catch? You’re giving away free money?' But, yes, we are giving away free money because we want more people to eat more fruits and vegetables,” said Program Manager for the St. Louis area Brian DeSmet.
Previously, the program was only available at a handful of area farmer’s markets, where customers received a dollar-to-dollar match on fruits and veggies. This summer, it will run at the Tower Grove, Webster Groves and North City (St. Louis) farmer’s markets, as well as those in DeSoto, Salem and some outstate areas. Organizers hope to add Ferguson’s market soon, following a technical glitch.
But now the goal is to also make the program available at local grocery stores. DeSmet said he’s working to implement it at independent stores like Local Harvest and the mobile St. Louis Metro Market by later this summer and bring it into at least five area Schnuck’s stores by next year.
“We’re excited to partner with the mobile market that comes to different areas but is focused around the JeffVanderLou neighborhood, because that will help us reach some people that aren’t going to be able to get to a farmer’s market or don’t have a farmer’s market right in their area,” he said.
The program will work a little differently at the stores: customers can buy up to $25 of locally grown produce using money from their EBT cards and they will get a matching amount for vegetables and fruits produced anywhere.
“It helps not only low-income shoppers, but also helps our local farmers, and keeps more money in the local economy,” DeSmet said. “It’s a triple win.”
The expansion is the result of a major reorganization of the St. Louis program. In its inaugural year, it only reached about 200 St. Louis residents – not nearly what its organizers had hoped, DeSmet said.
“We only had about a $3,000 budget for the whole season and no marketing budget. It was all done by word of mouth and social media,” he said. “Some markets did get some usage, but some didn’t have a lot.”
That’s why the St. Louis effort joined the multi-state “Double Up” collaborative run by the Fair Food Network, where DeSmet now works. The network has “a pretty good track record as far as how to grow programs and keep sustainable,” he said. That experience helped it net a large grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program to expand these dollar-matching services into nine states.
The program expansions in Missouri and Kansas will be funded through a $2.9 million FINI grant given to the Mid-America Regional Council; matching private and public funding brought the total to $5.8 million.
For the St. Louis area, that means a $50,000 budget just for current and potential farmer’s markets programs and reaching thousands of people, versus hundreds, DeSmet said.
“This year, we’re working with the East-West Gateway Council of Governments; they are helping us to do outreach and GIS mapping of organizations near the farmer’s markets and grocery stores to help us get the word out to EBT recipients,” he said. “There will be a lot more of that kind of stuff going on this year that we didn’t really have the ability to do last year.”
“We’re just hoping we can use the community networks around to get the word out so people are actually using this, because we have the money,” he added.