May 1, 2015 | Erin Bluvas, email@example.com
Sonya Jones, associate professor of health promotion, education, and behavior and director of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, is the principal investigator of the COPASCities study—a study funded through the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Childhood Obesity Program, aimed at building community capacity for creating food systems change. SNAP healthy incentives programs are becoming more common around the country. Also known as “SNAP Double Bucks,” these programs provide financial incentives for SNAP (i.e., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets and some grocery stores.
During the fall of 2014, Carrie Draper (Nutrition Center director of policy and partnership development), Holly Pope (Nutrition Center director of evaluation) and other COPASCities team members* conducted a PhotoVoice study to assess the successes, facilitators and barriers for implementing South Carolina’s own version of a SNAP healthy incentives program, S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks. The S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks program is administered by the S.C. Department of Social Services with bonus funds the state received from the federal government.
Six farmers markets in locations throughout the state who already participate in the SNAP program (i.e., accepted a SNAP/EBT card for fruit and vegetable purchases) participated in a pilot implementation of the S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks program. At participating locations, SNAP recipients could receive a $5 Healthy Bucks token for use at the farmers market after spending $2.50 of their SNAP benefits on fresh fruits or vegetables.
Previous evaluations of SNAP healthy incentive programs in other states have shown an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP recipients and a corresponding increase in SNAP sales for farmers at participating markets. In a similar program piloted by the USDA (The Healthy Incentives Pilot), 76 percent of SNAP recipients ended up buying more fruits and vegetables as a result of the program. With nearly $2 million earmarked for this type of programming in S.C., the researchers’ findings from the S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks Program pilot suggest that this allocation will be money well spent.
The team used PhotoVoice, a community participatory methodology involving taking photos followed by facilitated conversation, to document the actual experiences and perspectives of SNAP beneficiaries and farmers engaged in the project. “This research methodology provides an opportunity for participants to convey much more than they could through a typical survey or interview in order to influence community and policy change,” says Draper. SNAP recipients and farmers took photographs and provided descriptive captions to illustrate both the benefits and challenges of engaging in the S.C. Healthy Bucks Program.
Their insights, which corroborated findings from other SNAP healthy incentive studies, revealed that recipients indeed increased their fruit and vegetable intake, and local farmers benefited from increased sales. Recipients also reported that the program enabled them to instill a sense of community within their children. Through this program, they were able to get produce that they would not have access to otherwise. Further, having more money to purchase produce led to having more fun and experimenting with cooking. Not surprisingly, the project illuminated some challenges as well.
Participants noted that unreliable transportation often posed a significant barrier to accessing local farmers markets. Lack of awareness and/or limitations related to farmers market locations, hours, produce options, receptive attitudes toward SNAP and actual acceptance of SNAP benefits presented additional challenges. An underlying cause that impacts many of these obstacles is the absence of adequate representation by SNAP recipients and/or advocates on the advisory boards that make decisions about these particular issues.
As a result of these findings, the team believes there is much work to be done to ensure low income families are able to access this program. They recommend ensuring that SNAP recipients are a part of each farmers market’s power and decision-making structure. They also suggest the creation of a “SNAP Champions” network, expansion of the SNAP Healthy Bucks Program, increased marketing and outreach, development of campaigns to recruit other farmers markets and individual farmers to participate in the program, enrollment of all eligible families into the SNAP program and adjustments to farmers markets logistics (e.g., hours, location) to make them more accessible to low income working families.
Of course $2 million toward this type of program, which sounds like a lot of money, is just a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.24 billion spent annually to provide SNAP benefits to South Carolinians. At present, only about 25 of the 180 community-based farmers markets throughout S.C. are set up to accept SNAP benefits. The team is currently working on disseminating the findings from the pilot investigation, to build awareness about the program and help inform successful expansion efforts. Most importantly, the team wants to ensure that as the primary stakeholders, SNAP recipients’ perspectives and voices are heard.
The S.C. Department of Social Services will expand the program in May 2015 to at least 18 locations. They will also include direct selling farmers and a produce buying club in the program. Finally, the amount of “Healthy Bucks” a SNAP recipient will be able to receive each shopping day has been increased to $10.
*Additional team members include Mary Wilson, Jason Craig, Casey Childers, Katie Welborn and LeTanya Williams.