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Double-Up Food Bucks Helps Shoppers Taste The Local DifferencePrint

Food & Farming | August 21, 2012 | By Diane Conners

Kathie Maldonado uses her Bridge Card at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market in Traverse City to double-her money.
Kathie Maldonado shops at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market in downtown Traverse City. Maldonado uses her Bridge card to double her spending money up to $20 thanks to a new nonprofit program, Double-Up Food Bucks. (Photo: James Russell/MLUI)

A year ago, Kathie Maldonado couldn’t imagine eating food like this.

Fresh fish from Lake Michigan. Fruits and vegetables picked juicy and crisp just the day before at local farms. And even chewy, flavorful bread she’d never seen in grocery stores.

Laid off after 30 years of work, and searching for employment for three years to no avail, the Traverse City woman just couldn’t afford it.

“For the first time in my life, I had to get help to eat,” Kathie said. She signed up for the SNAP Bridge Card, the modern version of food stamps.

Healthy Helpings

Now, thanks to a new nonprofit program, Kathie can double her Bridge Card money up to $20 each shopping trip if she uses it to purchase groceries at participating farmers markets. That means $40 each visit for healthy food instead of just $20. That’s an extra $40 into the local food and farm economy.

Sarah Shimek, community outreach coordinator for the Grand Traverse County Health Department, said she hears enthusiastic stories about Double Up Food Bucks from the young mothers her department counsels on nutrition. One mom told her that her children always asked her to buy extra items at the farmers market, and she always had to say no because she didn’t have enough money.

“It’s really awesome for me to tell my kids ‘Yes, we can get that,’” she said.

Bridge Card and Double Up dollars are spent in tokens that individuals get at the markets when they swipe their card into a debit card-like machine—wooden tokens for the Bridge Card and metal for Double Up. The Double Up tokens can only be spent on fruits and vegetables, while the Bridge Card tokens can be spent on any grocery item that’s allowed with the card in stores. So Kathie can use her Bridge Card tokens at the market to buy fish, bread, eggs, milk, cheese—even vegetable seedlings to grow her own food. As a result, the Double Up program is making it easier for families to buy from many local food producers, not just those who grow fruit and vegetables.

Kathie loves buying fresh fish from Ed and Cindi John, who head out in their family’s commercial fishing boat from the Tribal Marina in Leelanau County’s Peshawbestown.

“He catches it the day before the farmers market every time,” Kathie said. “It is a fresh catch. And his wife told me of four different ways I could make the fish. I walked away with so much information. Not only do I have items to bring home, I also have ideas on how to fix them – and healthy ideas. I get much more information than I came in with.

“Double Up Food Bucks is a blessing,” she said.

Roots of the Program

The national nonprofit Fair Food Network, based in Ann Arbor, launched Double Up Food Bucks in August 2010 at five markets in Detroit. Today, according to Fair Food president and CEO Oran Hesterman, the program has expanded to more than 100 sites statewide. Farmers markets in 2011 recorded more than $1.3 million in sales from Bridge Card benefits and Double Up Food Bucks combined.

Members of the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, which is working to make sure at least 20 percent of the region’s food comes from local farms by 2020, successfully raised enough money to bring the program to this part of the state for three years, starting in August 2011. In all, the regional community raised $50,000 locally, which the Fair Food Network matched with an additional $25,000, for a total of $75,000 that can be spent by local families on locally grown fruits and vegetables. And because the Double Up Food Bucks program matches Bridge Card spending, it means a total of $150,000 for the local food economy.

In Northwest Lower Michigan, Double Up Food Bucks is accepted at the following markets: Sara Hardy Downtown Traverse City, Suttons Bay, Lake Leelanau, Manistee, Marvin’s Gardens Spot farm market store near Interlochen and Grow Benzie. People also can shop at the Elberta Farmers Market, but first they have to visit the Grow Benzie market on a different day to swipe their Bridge Card and get their tokens. The Cadillac market also hopes to offer the service soon. For more information, including locations and dates of participating markets, go to doubleupfoodbucks.org and click on Find a Market.

For information about obtaining a Bridge Card, call 1-888-642-7434 or visit Michigan.Gov/mibridges.

Local resources connected to Double Up Food Bucks are available at the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network’s website, foodandfarmingnetwork.org.

This article first appeared in the Aug/Sept 2012 issue of Families First Monthly

Diane Conners directs the Healthy Food for All program at the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, which coordinated the Food & Farming Network’s effort to bring Double Up Food Bucks to northwest Lower Michigan.