By ALEX MITCHELL
Capital News Service
LANSING—Michigan residents on food assistance are doubling their purchasing power at farmers markets in a program that encourages healthier eating while supporting farmers.
The growing program is so successful that state officials expect it to expand even more next year.
“For the first time, families are thinking of where the food is coming from and canning and freezing some food for the winter,” said Rachel Chadderdon, Double Up Food Bucks program manager.
The program provides more healthy food to a state that is tenth in the nation in obesity. The rate among Michigan adults is 31 percent. At the same time the effort provides more income for farmers.
Here’s how it works:
Michigan’s food assistance program gives low-income individuals Bridge Cards with a fixed amount of money for purchasing food each month. With Double Up Food Bucks, when a Bridge Card user purchases fruits or vegetables at participating farmers markets, the amount paid (up to $20) is matched with tokens that can be used at participating farmers markets.
Early numbers from the program’s pilot years in 2009 and 2010 when five markets participated indicated enough success that warranted expanding the program to more than 40 markets this year, Chadderdon said.
Between August and October of 2010, Detroit Eastern Market saw a 368 percent increase in food assistance buying power compared to the same period of 2009, Chadderdon said.
This year more than 35,000 transactions were made with Bridge Cards at farmers markets; 12,000 were first time transactions, Chadderdon said.
Between Bridge Card dollars and money from double up tokens, farmers markets brought in $1.1 million they wouldn’t have otherwise.
The tokens are separately funded by 30 private organizations, half of which are from Michigan. The same funding is expected for next year.
There are similar food incentive programs in California and Illinois, Chadderdon said.
“It has not only provided financial support for low income individuals, it has created awareness that farmers markets accept those benefits and has created awareness in farmers markets in general,” said Amanda Segar, food assistance partnership coordinator for the Michigan Farmers Market Association.
Segar said individuals with Bridge Cards asked how to access the program and she received positive feedback from market managers.
Eighty-two Michigan Farmers Markets accept Bridge Cards, with two additional markets in Toledo, Ohio, that accept both Bridge Cards and Ohio Direction cards, Ohio’s food assistance card, according to the Michigan Farmers Market Association.
The program has benefitted communities that live in “food deserts” with little locally grown fruits and vegetables, which is how Jill Myer, Vice Chair of the Greater Grand Rapids Food Council described Kent County.
“I think it took a little bit for people to realize the power of Double Up Food Bucks, but when they did, it was a draw,” said Myer who manages the South East Area Farmers Market.
Myer said it helped that five other markets in Kent County participated in the program, allowing customers to spend their tokens at other nearby markets on days her market isn’t open.
The Allen Street Farmers Market in Lansing was the first farmers market to be approved to accept bridge cards in 2005, said Joan Nelson, executive director of the Allen Street Farmers Market.
Nelson said that Bridge Card use has increased with awareness that her market accepts them.
“We had a 70 or 80 percent increase in bridge card use last year; the addition of the double up has continued that trend,” Nelson said. She credited the increase to Bridge Card holders becoming more aware that their benefits can be used at farmers markets through word of mouth.
Nelson called the program “highly successful.” She could not say how much the program has increased business because the farmers market season has not yet concluded.
Farmers markets that did not participate this year may join next year.
Sarah Monte, who runs the Marquette Farmers Market, said that her market had planned to participate this year, but didn’t sign up in time. She said she sees the benefits of the program and hopes to get involved.
Editor’s note: Story updated 11/02/11 to reflect accurate number of markets accepting bridge cards.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By ALEX MITCHELL