By Cailin Kowalewski
Newly-announced USDA funding will support healthy food incentives across the country
The USDA this week announced a new grant program that will help participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) afford fruits and vegetables. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program will offer $31.5 million in competitive grants to organizations from across the food system. These organizations will be able to use FINI funding to support projects that increase SNAP participant access to fruits and vegetables through incentive programs at the point of sale.
FINI is a joint effort between the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which runs SNAP, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Over the next five years they will distribute grant awards to community-focused initiatives including small pilot projects (up to $100,000 over a maximum of one year), multi-year community-based projects (up to $500,000 over a maximum of four years), or larger-scale multi-year projects (more than $500,000 over a maximum of four years).
Organizations that are eligible for FINI grants are diverse, and include non-profits, farmers’ markets and associations, health agencies, economic development groups, grocery or corner stores, and local and tribal governments. This range of potential grantees affords an impressive opportunity for collaboration across different sectors of the food system, and may help strengthen existing programs that have already proven successful at increasing SNAP purchases of fruits and vegetables.
For small-scale, direct to consumer operations, FINI grants may make SNAP retail more economically feasible. In low-income communities, it may dramatically improve access to fresh, healthy produce.
The most likely recipients of FINI funding will be coordinating organizations that manage incentive programs at state and regional levels. However, local and small-scale programs that are particularly successful may also receive the much-needed support to expand and improve their SNAP incentive programs.
Priority will be given to projects that maximize funds used directly for incentives, use direct-to-consumer marketing, are located in underserved communities (especially Promise Zones and StrikeForce communities), link low-income customers to farmers, and provide local produce. Programs that develop improved benefit redemption systems that can be replicated or scaled will also receive greater consideration.
Why SNAP incentive programs?
Incentive programs have historically been effective for improving consumption of fruits and vegetables among SNAP recipients. The Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), conducted by the Mass Department of Transitional Assistance and USDA/FNS, examined the impact of a SNAP incentive program in Hampden County, MA, from 2011 to 2012. An interim report in 2013 indicated that HIP study participants had a 25% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption compared to control group members. HIP participants were also more likely to have fruits and vegetable in the home than nonparticipants.
Programs like Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks and Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program have been permutated and replicated across the country, and help open places like farmers’ markets, which are often perceived as being exclusively priced, to more income demographics. Organizations that implement these programs leverage funding from federal and state governments, public and private grants, and donations, and essentially funnel it those who sell and buy local fruits and vegetables.
Some concerns exist about where FINI funding will actually be distributed. Under FINI’s eligibility requirements, large grocery stores could potentially receive FINI grants. Many argue that this would sink federal money into the pockets of large-scale retailers, dissipating the community economic benefits that would come from increased SNAP sales to local producers. This would also conflict with objectives of previous USDA initiatives like the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Promotion Program and the Local Food Promotion Program.
FINI will also be challenging to implement at seasonally-operating places like farmers markets, where the actual time frame for testing is small and staff capacity is limited. In the past, incentive programs have struggled to last because of high administrative burdens and challenges adopting and implementing new technologies. In some cases, redemption rates drop because of factors like inadequate transportation to markets, lack of marketing, and perceived stigmatization.
The grant distribution process will be an enormous undertaking for USDA, and it is likely that it will outsource to NGOs for assistance with the process. This 2014 solicitation for proposals combines funds for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and there will not be a solicitation in fiscal year 2015. Applications are due Dec. 15, 2014. NIFA will host a webinar for applicants on Oct. 2 at 2 p.m., EDT.
Cailin Kowalewski is a second-year FPAN student from Western New York who loves big dogs, tiny houses, and a good run. She plans to survive this winter with the help of homemade applesauce and copious amounts of Sabres hockey.