Healthy Food Incentive Programs Support Local Economies and Local Health
Submitted by Jay Eury, Extension Educator, Energy, Business & Community Vitality Team with Penn State Cooperative Extension
What’s a tool that connects farm and food businesses to new customers; enables lower income-earning families to better afford healthy food, and efficiently leverages public and private investment to generate local economic activity? The answer is Healthy Food Incentive Programs.
‘Healthy Food Incentive Programs,’ or ‘Nutrition Incentive Programs’ as they’re sometimes called, have been around in the U.S. for ten to fifteen years. In a nutshell, they are small payments made to local businesses – farms and food producers and retailers – that accompany the sales those businesses make to customers shopping with funds from social safety net programs. Programs like SNAP (formerly called food stamps) and WIC (the Women, Infants and Children program) transfer funds to cardholders’ accounts on a monthly basis, with which they can purchase eligible food items using a specific debit-type card. Healthy Food Incentive Programs piggyback on top of these SNAP, WIC, and other state or federal funds, but go directly to the farm or food business to pay for a portion of every item purchased. For the shopper, this discounts the cost of the fresh fruits and vegetables, locally produced meat, dairy and other foods they are buying. This incentivizes, or enables, more healthy food consumption for the shopper. For the business owner, this creates an opportunity for new market development and customer acquisition, and directly supports sales. This incentivizes and enables more farm and local-food-related economic development.
There are many different types of healthy food incentive programs across the U.S. They operate at a variety of scales and all along the rural-to-urban supply chain. Examples can be found at individual farm stands in small towns, networks of retail farm markets across counties or neighborhood grocery stores across cities, as well as several statewide programs in Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York. The original seed of this model as ‘nutrition incentives’ was designed as a public health intervention. Hospital systems, community-based organizations, private philanthropy, and research universities across the U.S. piloted a range of programs with names like ‘Double Up Food Bucks,’ ‘Market Match,’ ‘Super SNAP,’ and ‘Vouchers for Veggies.’ These efforts have led to a growing body of literature in the field of public health that shows the positive effects of this type of incentive programs; generally, by helping families stretch their limited food dollars, buy healthier options, and establish habits that support overall health and wellness. Research is now demonstrating that healthy food incentive programs don’t just reduce hunger and improve nutrition at the individual or household level. They also support local agriculture and retail - and have tremendous economic return on investment. A 2021 study done by researchers from Colorado State University and UC Davis shows that for every $1 invested in a healthy food incentive program, we can expect to see up to $3 in economic activity generated as a result.
‘Nutrition Incentives’ to a dietician, public health research, or hospital administrator… are the same thing as ‘Healthy Food Incentives’ [or Supports] in the eyes of community-based organizations, frontline human service efforts, and food justice organizers. And what all those groups are talking about, by design, amounts to significant investment in local and small businesses in the food supply chain. This model may provide the most significant local economic multiplier and return on investment in more rural counties with higher numbers of farms growing fruits and vegetables for market as well as small food businesses like butchers, dairies and bakeries; and all the agriculture-adjacent businesses serving those farmers and food businesses. More research is needed to in this area.
In Franklin County, PA, local businesses have been experimenting with the healthy food incentive model since 2016. The North Square Farmers Market, that operates seasonally in downtown Chambersburg, manages a nutrition incentive program they call ‘Double Dollars.’ Double Dollars at North Square Farmers Market is open to all customers who shop with SNAP, WIC, and SFMNP funds. SNAP is what used to be called food stamps. WIC is the federal Women, Infants and Children program. SFMNP is a state agricultural program for senior citizens that provides $50 vouchers to income-eligible residents who shop at Pennsylvania farmstands.
North Square Farmers Market’s ‘Double Dollars’ program (postcard English / Spanish) matches the first $20 any SNAP, WIC, or SFMNP shopper spends every Saturday. Customers swipe their EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards for however much funds they intend to use at market – they then receive twice as much market currency in the form of wooden tokens, up to $20 matched, every week. So potentially, $20 in EBT funds turns into $40 market money for fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, and baked goods for any customer shopping with SNAP, WIC, or SFMNP, every Saturday May through November.
Where does the money come from? North Square Farmers Market’s ‘Double Dollars’ effort – which was piloted by a community-based nonprofit, South Central Community Action Programs (SCCAP) – was initially funded by a grant from a local hospital endowment in 2016. Small fundraising events and individual donors sustained the program for years, and through the COVID-19 pandemic. Now in 2023 local health improvement coalition, Healthy Franklin County, has sponsored the market to expand this promising program. Regionally and nationally, many healthcare systems (including WellSpan Health), health insurance providers, and private health foundations fund this model of program. Several legislatures are considering statewide funding for such programs, in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts most notably. There is also a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program, created by the 2014 Farm Bill and expanded in 2018, with annual funding of approximately $50 million. The purpose of this ‘Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program’ is to support healthy food incentive programs across the country, improve the health and nutrition of participating households, as well as to collect data to identify and improve best practices of this healthy food incentive programs, to support both local health and economic investment.
For more information about healthy food incentive programs, learning resources, and the best practices shared by Gus Schumacher grant-funded projects from the past eight years, visit www.nutritionincentivehub.org. To see this type of program in action locally, stop by the North Square Farmers Market in downtown Chambersburg any Saturday morning and visit the Market Info Booth. Healthy food incentive programs are a nationally recognized community food security support, household nutrition intervention, and local economic development powerhouse.
 Hilary Hoynes, Diane Schanzenbach, Douglas Almond, “Long-Run Impacts of Childhood Access to the Safety Net,” American Economic Review 106, no. 4 (2016): 903-34.
 Thilmany D, Baumann A, Love E, Jablonski Becca BR. January 2021. The Economic Contributions of Healthy Food Incentives. Available at https://fairfoodnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Economic_Contributions_Incentives_2_2_21.pdf