This article was written by Local Food Systems Intern, Sarah Schenck.
"A sustainable food system is not just about achieving economic viability and on-farm sustainability, but is also underpinned by wider social and ecological concerns, such as community food security, fair labor practices, food safety, equitable access to food and the means to produce food, healthy ecosystems and animal welfare.” Rebecca Duell
We’re stoked about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. We’re also pretty fond of shopping at farmers’ markets. As wonderful as these outlets are for connecting us to our local food system, we want everyone to share in the bounty of health and well-being gained from participating, but presently, there are hurdles that hinder many in our community from partaking in the local food economy. Past discussions on the affordability and accessibility of locally produced foods have touched on the matter that localization aptly involves paying the full costs of food (environmental, social, and economic), but in order to have relevance for food security and social justice, these are costs we must all be able to pay.
This is a challenge that we’re working to address nationally and locally. Augmenting the purchasing power of customers paying with food assistance benefits is incentive for new low-income customers and can increase food security in the surrounding community.
“Encouraging low-income families to put more healthy food in their grocery baskets is part of USDA’s ongoing commitment to improving the diet and health of all Americans,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Creative community partnerships benefit regional food producers and local economies along with SNAP participants.”
Embodying this, a number of standup organizations across Arizona have partnered with the USDA in tackling the obstacles of getting nutritious, local food into the homes of all members of the community through various initiatives including:
- The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly the Food Stamp Program)
- Child Nutrition Programs
- The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), including Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) and Senior Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP)
Of the several challenges in increasing food access to underserved neighborhoods, there’s lack of awareness regarding who’s eligible for these programs, where benefits are accepted, and how to utilize benefits. Also, markets are generally not located in the most at risk neighborhoods.
Among local actors pushing for change, these three are making notable improvements:
- The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona Only 36% of farmers’ markets in AZ accept SNAP benefits. The food bank brings produce to low-income clients outside of the traditional market setting through its seasonal, mobile farm stands. They operate with a consignment model, providing community empowerment, education, and resource sharing for small scale farmers and gardeners. All vendors at the farm stands accept SNAP, WIC, and SFMNP. Strategic in their choice of location, they address accessibility concerns by stationing a farm stand outside of the food bank. Creative solutions increase access, like distributing SFMNP vouchers while seniors are waiting in line to receive food boxes so they can seamlessly transition to purchasing fresh produce afterwards in a single trip.
- University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Cooperative Extension A major hindrance to getting healthy food to the community is the public’s general unfamiliarity with fresh produce. There are misconceptions that local produce is not affordable or it’s low quality, in addition to uncertainty about how to store and prepare fruits and veggies. The UA Nutrition Network is phenomenal in combatting these obstacles by making food “real” to people. Individuals need to grow familiar with seeing, smelling, and tasting produce in order to be comfortable seeking it out at the market, farm stand, or through a CSA. This is where the value of educational outreach, food demonstrations, and recipe provision comes in. The network spreads common nutrition messages using the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and ChooseMyPlate.gov to SNAP participants and those eligible for it. Decreasing social barriers to food access is just as important as addressing geographical ones.
- Maricopa County Department of Public Health 23% of people eligible for SNAP aren’t participating in the program. Furthermore, while redemption rates are high at some markets, in total, SNAP only makes up 1-2% of market sales. One goal of Maricopa County’s Department of Public Health is to help families increase their purchasing power with SNAP by directing them to healthy food. In part, this means eliminating the stigma of participating in federal benefit programs. More so, it means distributing information to increase awareness of CSAs and markets that accept benefits, in addition to locations, times, and dates. They’re undertaking efforts to get the word out with brochures, flyers, bilingual messages, signage at markets, and visible info in SNAP and WIC offices. Again, meeting the community where they are. Cindy Gentry, Food Systems Coordinator of the department says, “Community is the crux of it all. Word needs to get out that SNAP and FMNP are welcome. It’s as basic as distributing flyers door to door, bringing it up at homeowners and neighborhood association meetings, or working with advocates to volunteer and host tables at farmers’ markets to get information about signing up for SNAP.”
As of April 2015, through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, USDA has awarded $31.5 million in funding to local, state, and national organizations to support programs that help participants in SNAP increase their purchase of fruits and vegetables. Serving as inspiration, Michigan's Double Up Bucks and California's Market Match offer models of healthy food incentive programs we can emulate to feed more families.
If you're interested in joining the efforts to increase healthy food access in Arizona, we'd like to hear from you at [email protected].