In September, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced that they would be making $31 million available in an effort to increase the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients by making these items more affordable. The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, the name of the program authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, will help to accomplish this goal by approving pilot and larger-scale projects across the country that offer incentives at the point of purchase for fruits and vegetables by SNAP recipients.
NOFA-VT will be applying for this funding to build upon our Harvest Health Coupon Program (HHCP), which operated at 41 EBT-accepting farmers’ markets in VT this summer. In the past, the HHCP operated as a $2 for $2 match program (up to $10) in which every $2 of SNAP benefits spent provided customers with a $2 coupon that could be used to purchase any SNAP-eligible food item. In the future, if we receive FINI funding, the incentive program will only be able to be used for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. At NOFA-VT, we understand that this modification to the program will somewhat restrict the choice of shoppers (i.e. breads and other non-produce food items would not be able to be purchased with FINI funds), but we are excited about the potential it has to increase the consumption of locally grown fruits and vegetables by Vermonters. The perceived high cost of local produce is often viewed as a barrier to participation in the local food movement by limited-income consumers, but with this funding, we see an opportunity to make produce more affordable and grow our locally food economy with the involvement of all Vermonters.
Currently, the HHCP operates between July 1st and October 31st, but with additional funding, we plan to expand the program to operate at farmers’ markets year round. By extending the HHCP into winter farmers’ markets and beginning the program at the start of the outdoor market season, we will be offering continuity in our farmers’ market based food security programs. This will also help to address the gap in affordable access to locally produced fruits and vegetables that many Vermonters experience between November and May. As a part of our work with the state’s EBT at Farmers’ Market Working Group, we also plan to continue to expand the reach of the HHCP by bringing new farmers’ markets into the program and increasing the internal capacity of markets already participating.
We believe that the FINI program, which will incentivize the use of SNAP dollars at local farmers’ markets, has the potential to make significant contributions to the health and wellbeing of our community of farmers and consumers. Currently, less than 1% of the over $145 million in 3SquaresVT benefits (Vermont’s name for the SNAP program) that Vermonters receive each year are used at farmers’ markets. The use of 3SquaresVT benefits with incentive dollars at farmers’ markets gives an opportunity to capture these federal dollars and incorporate them back into the local economy.
We look forward to sharing our progress on this initiative with you in the upcoming months.
[Post by Michael Good, NOFA Vermont Community Food Security Program Assistant.]