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Two For One: Subsidies Help Food Stamp Recipients Buy Fresh Food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced that $31.5 million is now available as grants to programs that help make farm-fresh fruits and vegetables more affordable for families who rely on food stamps.

The Food Insecurity Nutrition Program is modeled on the Fair Food Network's Double Up Food Bucks initiative in Michigan and Wholesome Wave's Double Value Coupon program at 350 farmers markets across the country.

Both programs boost the purchasing power of SNAP, or food stamps, at farmers markets. If a SNAP recipient uses $10 of their benefits at a farm market, they get $20 dollars worth of produce. The USDA grants, which have to be matched by private donations, will provide the $10 subsidy.

Those dollars benefit both low-income consumers and local, small-scale farmers. Backers of such programs say that's good for public health and local communities. "Helping families purchase more fresh produce is clearly good for families' health, helps contribute to lower health costs for the country, and increases local food sales for family farmers," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The USDA also announced $52 million in grants to support organic farming and local and regional "food hubs." To illustrate what this means, Vilsack paid a visit to a Virginia farm operation (and USDA grantee) called Milton's Local Harvest, which calls itself a virtual marketplace. It connects local farmers with large-scale institutional purchasers of food who'd like to buy local but aren't set up to deal with lots of small farmers.

Both pots of money were created through the 2014 Farm Bill. "These new programs will not only empower low-income Americans to provide their families with more healthy fruits and vegetables, they will also help strengthen local economies by investing in local food systems and organic agriculture," wrote Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow in statement. Stabenow chairs the Senate's agriculture committee, and played a big role in creating the new programs.

Sales of locally produced food have expanded a lot over the last few years, and the USDA says this has led to new jobs. A 2011 USDA study concluded that produce growers supplying local and regional markets generate 13 full-time operator jobs for each million dollars in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008.

"Consumers are increasingly demanding more local and organic options. Investing in local and regional food systems supports the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers, especially smaller operations, while strengthening economies in communities across the country, " Vilsack said.

We sat down with the founder of Wholesome Wave, Michel Nischan, to chat about what these initiatives are likely to accomplish. He thinks they'll have a huge impact. SNAP purchases, he points out, add up to close to $80 billion a year. "We think that if we can shift a good chunk of that $80 billion towards local and regional farming, it can actually change the food system."

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Allison Aubrey and Dan Charles