Grant expands fresh produce for Florida SNAP recipients

Florida's fruit and vegetable production is year-round and the second largest in the United States. However, since most is exported, a problem exists: few Florida residents purchase and consume Florida-grown produce. Add to that scenario the fact that nearly one in six Floridians is without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

An organic grower organization is providing a solution. Via a large-scale grant over three years, the Florida Organic Growers (FOG) is boosting organic, local produce use among low-income Floridians.

In April, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack flew to Florida, and awarded FOG one of its eight multi-year large-scale Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grants. FOG’s Program Director Marty Mesh, a recipient of one of OTA’s Organic Leadership Awards in 2014, and his staff were present to receive the award.

Marty Mesh of Fog with Secretary Vilsack

Through community support and funding from Jane's Trust, Englewood Farmers’ Market in Englewood, Florida, has been able to hire support staff to manage Fresh Access Bucks.

“We have a unique opportunity to combat our state’s food insecurity while providing new market opportunities for Florida farmers,” said Mesh, adding that a miniscule amount (.018% in 2013) of assistance benefits go to the state’s farmers. As a result of the grant, people in under-served communities will have access to affordable, fresh Florida-grown produce at farmers’ markets, and soon Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs), while providing a real immediate benefit to farmers and their communities.

The grant was part of 31 small to large grants given in the program’s first year. (The Rodale Institute received a one-year award.)  Funded by the 2014 Farm Bill, the grants are designed to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables among low-income consumers participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As a result, now cardholders can take advantage of a one-to-one match. Thus, cardholders who spend $10 on fresh, Florida grown produce can receive an additional $10 to purchase more fresh, local produce.

Increasing farmer sales

In the Florida program entitled Fresh Access Bucks (FAB): Increasing Food Access and Florida Farmer Sales at Markets Statewide, organic products are a key component, although conventional, certified organic and practicing organic/not certified are all covered.

Carmen Franz, the manager of the FAB program, co-wrote the grant application after a successful two-year pilot program funded by state grants. “Through 20 farmers’ markets we generated over $200,000 in healthy food purchases for over 150 Florida farmers and added 3,000 new shoppers. We were also very good at building partnerships with key agencies and organizations that demonstrated our collaborative efforts in Florida,” she said.

Over the next three years, 30 markets will join the current 20 throughout at least 21 counties in Florida.

Helping individuals

Art Friedrich is one of those partners. In 2009, he moved to the Miami Dade area with non-profit experience and a background helping his family run sustainable farms in New England.

 “I wasn’t planning to get back into non-profit work, but there was a total lack of a local food market in the Miami area,” he said. With the help of a colleague, he organized a non-profit organization—Urban Oasis Project—that oversees seven of FAB’s current 20 markets. Other endeavors include managing Verde Gardens—a 22-acre organic farm and café—that also benefits a permanent assisted-housing program for formerly homeless families in partnership with Carrfour Supportive Housing.

Friedrich say his numbers show local produce has doubled each year. He estimates certified organic produce make up 70% of sales, with organically grown but not certified accounting for another 20%.

All his markets are located in low- or mixed-income neighborhoods, while a Supportive Community Agriculture (SCA) program is being developed that will provide the FAB program in housing projects through a smaller weekly drop-off food share. “We’re getting a great response from SNAP users who, with the doubling of the produce, are able to feed their families. They can double their fruits and vegetables, up to $20 a day. They’re spreading the word among their friends.”

This mirrors national research on farmers’ market SNAP incentive programs, which show 90% of incentive program consumers report increasing their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Partnerships key

FAB’s manager Franz said the biggest challenge is getting the word out about the program

“It’s been difficult without ample resources to do professional branding and expensive advertisements to let SNAP participants know about the program,” said Franz, adding that grassroots outreach is vital in local communities. “The relationships we’ve built with state level agencies have made a huge impact on expanding our reach,” she said.

To make sure recipients know the benefits and how to prepare seasonal produce on a budget, the market partners conduct regular nutrition education initiatives such as health screenings, and recipe and nutrition info for fruits and vegetables. The grant includes educational funding for each market to purchase mobile, cooking demo units.

“In some instances, our markets partner with local chefs to do the demos, or we’ve partnered with the American Culinary Federation or various volunteers from culinary schools,” said Franz. //