Fresh produce more accessible for low-income Michigan residents

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Image: Fair Food Network

By Barbara Bellinger
Capital News Service

A program that gives low-income Michigan residents fresh fruit and vegetables and a path to healthier nutrition recently got a $2 million boost from state lawmakers.

That’s up from the $900,000 they allocated last year for the Double Up Food Program. The program gives participants a dollar-for-dollar match on fresh fruits and vegetables. Families receive twice the quantity of produce for half the price.

“It feels as if when this program was started, it was just a crazy idea,” said Alex Canepa, the policy manager for the Fair Food Network, which manages the program. “Now it’s time has come. Both Lansing and D.C. (legislators) are talking about the importance of nutrition security.”

Michigan’s Double Up program launched in 2009 as the first state in what is now a 29-state program run by the Fair Food Network based in Ann Arbor. The program has grown from five Detroit-area farmers markets to around 250 farmers markets, mobile markets, food stands and independent grocers.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded the food network a four-year, $12.5 million grant in 2019 for program expansion. But to get the money, the program needs a 50% match, Canepa said.

“The state money allows us to draw down the full remaining balance,” Canepa said.

This added benefit is necessary for a state that has 1.9 million people who are food insecure, according to a Food Security Council report.

“One administrative change the state made early in the pandemic was to eliminate the $20-per-day limit for Double Up Food Bucks,” Julie Cassidy, the senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy, wrote in an email. “This helped families stretch their food assistance dollars as far as possible when so many were suddenly struggling, food prices were skyrocketing, and local pantries were pushed to the limit.

“It gives customers really good options,” said Courtney King, the manager of King Orchards in Kewadin and Central Lake in northern Michigan. “I love that it’s just for like fresh produce, which really helps us and them.”

Becoming a Double Up Food Bucks retailer requires a lot of accounting, but it’s a great way to provide fresh produce to people who might otherwise think it is too expensive, King said.

“It’s a multi-pronged process,” said Joe Lesausky, food access director for the Michigan Farmers Market Association.

Farmers markets and farm stands first apply to be approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a vendor for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. Then they must contact the Michigan Farmers Market Association to apply to become a Double Up Bucks retailer.

The program is in 67 of Michigan’s 83 counties and adds about 10 new sites a year, Lesausky said. Officials say they hope to reach all of the state’s counties in the next three years.

“We saw an increase of Double Up spending before the pandemic in even middle and upper-middle class communities,” Canepa said.

“Nutrition insecurity isn’t always where you expect it to be.”

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