In Denver and across Colorado, socially-astute farmers markets want to lure a more diverse crowd with live entertainment, free health screenings, cooking demonstrations, and Spanish interpreters — and by accepting LiveWell Colorado's Double Up Food Bucks program.
Everybody wants to get the most bang for their buck — especially now that roughly four out of five Americans live paycheck-to-paycheck, according to the jobsite CareerBuilder.
But the 40 million low-income Americans who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or the government benefit still commonly referred to as ‘food stamps,” must develop superhuman budgeting skills, as the average SNAP recipient in 2017 was allotted about $4.20 a day, or $1.40 per meal.
Many SNAP recipients receive much less than that; some as little as $16 a month.
One way that these individuals and families stretch their SNAP dollars is by taking advantage of a supporting program known as Double Up Food Bucks, which allows them to shop at participating markets and earn additional dollars specifically earmarked for fresh, locally-grown produce.
Denver Urban Gardens partners with Slow Food Denver to help schools facilitate a garden-to-cafeteria program as well as farm stands that are stocked from school gardens. Many of DUG's youth farm stands honor LiveWell Colorado's Double Up Food Bucks program. Photo by Scott Russell provided by Denver Urban Gardens.
In other words, if a SNAP recipient spends $5 at a participating market, that individual will receive an additional $5 to spend on Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables, and can get as much as $20 Double Up Food Bucks dollars during each shopping trip.
The program, says Amy Nelms, the food access coordinator at LiveWell Colorado, is meant to be a win-win-win for consumers, communities, and farmers — some of whom struggle just as much to make ends meet as SNAP recipients.
The Double Up program is, “a win for families because it allows them to bring home more healthy foods. It’s a win for farmers because they’re making more money. And it’s a win for local economies because those dollars stay in Colorado,” Nelms says.
Double Up Food Bucks are available through farmers markets as well as farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) stands and boxes, and select grocery stores. More than 80 locations recognize the program. A searchable location map is available online at doubleupcolorado.org.
But Nelms concedes that in order for more SNAP recipients to take advantage of the Double Up program, many farmers markets must break free from the stereotype that they are havens for shopping artisan goods while pushing a chichi stroller past one’s chichi neighbors.
Nasturtium, an edible flower, thrives in the Metro Caring greenhouse. Beverly Grant favors the plant not just because of its vivid blooms and sweet-spicy flavor. Nasturtium, which contains a high concentration of vitamin C and natural antibiotics, also is a powerful warrior against the common cold. Photo by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.
“The local food movement shouldn’t just be for some, and it shouldn’t be restricted by income,” Nelms says. “Everyone deserves high quality produce, and the choice to be healthy.”
Local farmers markets with the most success diversifying their customer base are engaged in serious community outreach. They also strive to program their markets with more attractions than shopping, including live music, cooking demonstrations, free health screenings, and Spanish-speaking vendors.
Consider the Boulder and Longmont farmers markets. Market coordinators in these burgs “have incredible reach to the SNAP population,” says Nelms. “But they also put a lot of effort into that.”
Beverly Grant goes as far as to knock on doors around her markets and farm in Northeast Denver. This insures that neighbors know when the markets are open, what they can find there, and where they can take advantage of the Double Up Food Bucks program.
Grant also aims to stock at least three corner stores in Northeast Denver, one of the city’s food desserts, with fresh produce during the farmer’s market season. “I’m going deeper and harder than most with this,” says Grant, whose businesses include the Mo Betta’ Green MarketPlace in Five Points, and the Seeds of Power Unity Farm in the Cole neighborhood.
In additional to running her own farmers markets and urban farm, Beverly Grant partners with community organizations on farm and garden initiatives. Here, Grant waters some of her seedlings at the greenhouse operated by Metro Caring at 18th Avenue and Downing Street in Denver. Photo by Elana Ashanti Jefferson
Backing the Double Up program, Grant says, is part of a big-picture mission to put more fresh fruits and vegetables in front of her neighbors at meals times, and to attack the higher rates of heart disease, pulmonary disease, obesity and diabetes that plague communities of color.
Food is both the problem and the solution, says Grant, a Denver native and longtime entrepreneur who became involved in food justice and production issues decades ago because one of her three children exhibited a severe gluten allergy, and then stayed in the local food movement as a one-time café proprietor and childcare provider who catered to families with special needs children.
Grant’s outlook on food was shaped by her grandmother, a transplant from Oklahoma to Denver in the 1950s who transformed the entire yard of her house in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood into a farm, which enabled the matriarch to keep a large family fed.
“The way I was eating growing up,” says Grant, “you can barely eat like that now.”
Metro Caring, an organization that battles hunger with a food bank and poverty-prevention programs, maintains a greenhouse and gardens to support its mission of making sure that fresh produce comprise roughly one-third of the food it distributes. Photo by Elana Ashanti Jefferson.
She believes the problem with today’s popular food culture is that we’ve been “socialized to think we don’t have time to cook, that it’s too hard, and it’s not convenient.”
Pair that dynamic with the way food desserts developed predominantly in low-income and minority communities, and the scene is set for a chronically unhealthy population.
But food — especially fresh fruits and vegetables — also is the solution: “Green food detoxes, red foods are good for the blood, and orange and yellow foods are cancer fighters … Kale has more calcium than milk, and more iron than beef,” Grant says.
What’s more, the heirloom vegetable varieties that she prefers to stock in her markets have 25 percent more nutrition than non-heirloom varieties.
Mikhaela Mullins also sees a direct and positive community-level impact spurred by the Double Up Food Bucks program. As the Director of School Garden Programs for Denver Urban Gardens (DUG), Mullins says that all it really takes for SNAP recipients to start using Double Up Food Bucks is for them to know when and where the benefit is available — even if some of the markets present a new and foreign shopping experience.
Young proprietors of the Denver Green School Community Farm Stand supported by Sprout City Farms talk with farmers and a customer. Sprout City Farms also honor Livewell Colorado's Double Up Food Bucks program. Photo provided by Sprout City Farms.
Since 2011, when the Double Up program started, “I’ve seen huge increases in people taking advantage of the program,” says Mullins, who oversees garden stands citywide that accept Double Up dollars.
Meg Caley, executive director of Sprout City Farms, says that accepting Double Up Food Bucks was a no-brainer for her organization. Sprout City Farms partners with larger, land-owning institutions to transform underutilized land into working farms.
“We just love it,” Caley says of the Double Up Food Bucks program. “We have always had a social justice and food justice mission, and have tried to get as much food as we can to the folks who typically can’t afford produce … This program makes it easy for us.”
Elana Ashanti Jefferson is a Denver native and longtime freelance journalist.
This is part one of a collaborative editorial project between Confluence Denver and LiveWell Colorado. The six-part series will examine barriers to healthy living in Colorado, and how communities are finding solutions.