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Low-income shoppers are ‘doubling up’ on fresh produce

A statewide program is making healthy foods accessible to SNAP recipients
Jordan Duncan, front-end manager at Durango Natural Foods Co-op, assists Jenny Mason as she pays with Double Up Food Bucks for her produce on Wednesday at the co-op. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

They look almost like Monopoly money. But to the people who use Double Up Food Bucks, the vegetable-adorned dollar bills are worth a great deal. They allow low-income shoppers to receive up to $20 per day in produce, effectively for free.

The Food Bucks are the product of a program facilitated by Nourish Colorado, a statewide nonprofit that works to address food insecurity and inequity in access to healthy foods through community building with local farms and ranches.

According to Feeding America, 1 in 12 Coloradans faces hunger. A single individual using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes informally known as “food stamps,” could receive up to $281. By comparison, the average monthly price of food in Colorado for an individual is $327.

Food Bucks can simultaneously allow shoppers to better leverage the buying power of their dollar, consume healthier food and support local businesses and agriculture.

How it works
SNAP users are eligible to receive Double Up Food Bucks at participating locations. They can receive up to $20 per day in matching funds, which can be used only on fresh produce. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

On the consumer end, the mechanism is simple. Anyone who participates in SNAP is eligible to receive Food Bucks when shopping at a qualifying location. When SNAP recipients spend their allotment, they receive matching Food Bucks. Each day, they can receive up to $20 in Food Bucks.

For example, when Jenny Mason arrives at the checkout counter at the Durango Natural Foods Co-op, she completes two transactions. First, she pays for her non-produce groceries using her electronic benefits transfer card, for which she receives a few dollars in Food Bucks. Then, the cashier rings up her produce – a bunch of bananas, some potatoes and three lemons – which she pays for using Double Up Food Bucks she just received as well as some she has stashed in her wallet from a previous purchase.

Some people use their food bucks as soon as they receive them. Others stockpile the bills for a later date.

“I have a whole huge stack of them,” said Matt Bell, who declined his Food Bucks on this particular day because he had so many. “I probably have $250.”

The bills can only be acquired and redeemed at qualifying locations. Of the 94 in the state, two are in Durango: Durango Natural Food Co-op and the Durango Farmers Market.

“We want to partner with more woman-owned small businesses and farms, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and LGBTQ-owned small businesses and farms,” said Caitlin Stuart, community engagement and navigator manager for Nourish Colorado. “While we are doing work around food access, also making sure that those partnerships that we have are elevating people who are often left out of farming and food systems work (is important).”

The program arrived in Colorado in 2017. Only two states in the country do not have a similar dollar-matching program. Funding comes from grants provided by the Gus Schumacher Nutritional Incentive Program, which is a part of the USDA Farm Bill.

Any stores that accept SNAP and want to participate may apply through Nourish Colorado. Stores must be willing to do eight to 10 hours of administrative work to facilitate the program and submit monthly invoices to receive compensation for produce that was purchased with Food Bucks.

To qualify, a store must carry a certain amount of Colorado-grown produce and meet the social justice-oriented mission of the program. However, Stuart said Nourish Colorado considers each application on a case-by-case basis in the interest of equity and ensuring that SNAP users across Colorado have the opportunity to stretch their dollars as much as possible.

While the exact number of people using Food Bucks is unknown, Stuart says the numbers are going up every year. In 2021, SNAP recipients spent $466,872 in Food Bucks.

Although the timeline is unclear, Nourish Colorado hopes to eliminate the use of paper bills in the future and integrate the program fully so that Double Up reimbursement is automatically applied to a SNAP user’s EBT card.

The impact
Only certain stores are eligible to participate in the Double Up program. Durango Natural Foods Co-op and the Durango Farmers market are the only two locations in the area. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

For SNAP recipients who use the Double Up program, it enables them not only to get more bang – double, to be precise – for their buck, but it encourages them to eat healthier and shop locally.

Many Double Up users say they could not otherwise afford to shop at the co-op were it not for the program. They would instead be forced to stretch their SNAP dollars by buying low-cost, generally low-quality foods.

“The produce is the most beautiful here and I have to say, during the pandemic, they were the best stocked store on produce, but I could not regularly afford their prices,” said Mason, who writes children’s literature for a living.

Mason, who has used social-welfare programs intermittently since adolescence, started using Food Bucks as soon as the program was announced.

“It was such a huge help to get produce, which can be so cost-prohibitive to actually have a healthy diet,” she said.

Alec Fleischer, the co-op’s marketing manager, said program helps the business live up to its community-oriented mission.

“Because of this program, our store became accessible to SNAP recipients,” Fleischer said. “That feels really good. We’re allowing people who maybe haven’t historically had access to local organic produce to have access to those healthy foods.”

Fleichser also noted that the program makes the entire store more accessible because the essentially free produce leaves shoppers to spend their SNAP dollars on other grocery items that may cost more at the co-op than they do at a chain grocery store.

Matt Bell said he has over $250 in Double Up Food Bucks saved up, and said he uses them regularly and has for about a year. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Bell said he started eating healthier once he learned about the program. He found that he is able to stretch broccoli the furthest and had learned to cook “a plethora of broccoli dishes.”

“It has forced me to be more creative with my cuisine,” he said.

Kelsey Newhouse has used the program for the last three years to help feed her three children, ages 6, 7 and 9. She said she would rather be shopping at the co-op to provide fresh produce to her kids.

“It means everything; it’s so awesome,” she said. “Without it we couldn’t do that. We’d be shopping at City Market, which is fine. It’s so wonderful to be able to come down here and (the kids) can get a free apple even. We’re here every day getting fresh vegetables.”

Although the program contributes to a healthy local economy by supporting small businesses and local agriculture, consumers emphasize its impacts on their own health, too.

Mason said she has to stay healthy for financial reasons, and eating well is a critical part of that.

“When you’re poor, you also don’t have health insurance,” she said. “I have to stay healthy to avoid hospitals and doctors’ bills, which I also couldn’t afford. So my health is paramount.”

Despite the stigma that can surround support programs, Mason stressed the importance of taking advantage of opportunities such as Double Up.

“If you’re hungry, you’re hungry – and every human has the right to eat healthy,” she said.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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