Community-Funded Incentive Programs Galvanize Neighborhood Support for Food Equity in Portland

By Anna Curtin, Portland Farmers Market

In the world of farmers markets, nutrition incentive programs are sprouting up all over as an effective weapon to combat our nation’s two tiered food system, one that provides plenty of local, fresh foods to those who can afford it and a produce-deficient, overly-processed diet to those who cannot. These programs incentivize SNAP recipients to shop farmers markets using their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps). At first glance, the incentive is simply a match that doubles the power of the SNAP funds redeemed within an individual market. On closer examination, SNAP nutrition incentive programs can be a key driver for strengthening the local economy. The programs are a win for everyone in the market community: a win for the shopper who gets the freshest, healthiest food available; a win for the vendor who brings home additional dollars at the end of the market day; and a win for the community at large that retains a greater share of the grocery dollar, boosting the local economy and helping to stabilize regional foodsheds.  This article provides a brief case study of two such nutrition incentive programs implemented at Portland Farmers Market in Portland, Oregon.

Portland is a unique outpost for anyone who is captivated by good food – whether as a food producer, consumer, or both. The agricultural bounty of the region is extraordinary. With more than 200 crops in cultivation and a temperate marine climate, the growing season extends year round and Portlandivores have many options to support local food with gusto. And they do. More than forty farmers markets dot the Metro area, and a majority of markets are authorized to accept SNAP benefits. Despite this, the state ranks number two in the nation for the number of citizens that experience food insecurity with one in six Oregonians receiving SNAP benefits in 2009.

In this same year, Portland Farmers Market (PFM) opened a new market located in a historically African-American, lower income area of the city with limited access to healthier foods, including fresh produce. The market was established with the support and collaboration of Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN), an organization that supports twelve neighborhood associations and more than 65,000 households in the few miles surrounding the market. In an effort to bolster neighborhood ownership of the market, NECN and a handful of dedicated community volunteers founded Foodshare Fund Northeast (FSFNE), a program to provide a dollar for dollar match up to $5 for SNAP recipients who shopped this new market. Funds for the incentive program came directly from individuals and area businesses within the surrounding community, truly localizing the program to the population served by the market.

FSFNE is administered in partnership with PFM and NECN, the program’s fiscal sponsor. The FSFNE volunteer team is responsible for fundraising and outreach while NECN handles donor relations and financial recordkeeping, in accordance with the fiscal sponsorship. As a 501(c)(3) organization, NECN is able to offer donors a tax deduction which would not be the case should the donor give directly to PFM,  which is a 501(c)(6) non-profit organization independent of any governmental or institutional support. PFM completes the FSFNE support triangle by managing vendor and customer relations, distributing funds to customers at the market and handling vendor reimbursements for SNAP funds used at the market.

Launched in the middle of the season, FSFNE proved to be a resounding success. In the inaugural year, the FSFNE team raised $10,000 from area businesses, community groups, and individuals. Nearly $4,000 in matching funds was distributed in just four months before the market closed for the season. Based on this achievement, FSFNE was expanded in 2010 with the goal of offering up to $10 in matching funds. As word about the program continued to spread, demand proved to be so great that the $10 match was lowered back to $5 partway through the summer to ensure the fund was solvent for the remainder of the season. By the end of 2010, the FSFNE team raised more than $28,000 and distributed almost $20,500 in matching funds.

The FSFNE nutrition incentive program has changed the face the market. The percentage of market shoppers who are SNAP recipients has risen exponentially. Prior to the program launch, only 1% of customers were SNAP recipients. By the close of the market in October 2010, the number had risen to 10% of all shoppers. SNAP shoppers were also consistent repeat customers despite weather challenges, returning to the market each week throughout the season. SNAP funds redeemed at the market rose with the shifting demographic, averaging just over $900 per market before the program was implemented to almost $1,300 per market by the end of this year’s season. The market saw 300 additional shoppers per week during the 2010 season as compared to its first season in 2009 and a 125% increase in SNAP funds redeemed at the market over that same time period. FSFNE’s disbursement average per market rose 230%, from $229 in 2009 to $756 in 2010.

One pleasantly surprising ripple effect of the incentive programs is greater ownership of the program by PFM vendors. Once vendors were informed about FSFNE, several began offering additional enticements to shoppers who used SNAP at the market, such as additional discounts on purchases. Vendors have also proved to be terrific advocates for the program, assisting with outreach through word of mouth, as well as their own business websites, and electronic newsletters.

Inspired by the accomplishments of FSFNE, a separate group of volunteers approached PFM about launching a similar incentive program at another market location in southeast Portland on opening day of the 2010 season. Christened “Fresh Exchange,” the program evolved out of the Portland Business Alliance’s Leadership Portland program, whose aim is to develop emerging leaders through implementation of community impact projects. The Fresh Exchange Leadership Portland team recruited two volunteer program co-coordinators and began raising funds within the neighborhood and outreaching to SNAP recipients.

From the beginning, Fresh Exchange built on the lessons learned by FSFNE. Fresh Exchange sought fiscal sponsorship with the nearby 501(c)(3) organization Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, an independent organization with more than twenty fiscal sponsorship arrangements for local organizations and programs. Donor solicitation also remained localized, limited to businesses and individuals within close proximity.  Fresh Exchange took a slightly different approach to larger scale donations, soliciting key corporate sponsors to build an endowment to kick off the program. Founding sponsors included a national bank, a community credit union, Portland’s NBA team, and a large law firm headquartered in the area. In return for support, sponsors were offered visibility at the market’s Fresh Exchange booth and recognition in printed materials.  The Fresh Exchange group also crafted an incentive program toolkit, intended to be distributed widely to encourage community groups to start similar efforts elsewhere.
Like FSFNE, Fresh Exchange has had an immediate and positive effect on the market it is intended to serve. Between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, SNAP redemptions at the market increased 52% and brought an additional $268 in matching funds into each market week. In the first season of operation, Team Fresh Exchange distributed almost $6,000 in matching funds and raised more than $8,000 from the local community.

As with any good work in progress, all parties involved with PFM’s nutrition incentive programs continue to learn from the past and look for ways to improve on future efforts. Over the course of two seasons, experience has proven that our neighbors enthusiastically support equal access to good food for all citizens, love a good fundraiser when it involves grilling season and lots of farm fresh goodies, and are terrific promoters of the incentive program to potential participants.  We’ve also learned that sustaining these programs is a precarious exercise. Both programs described here rely in large part on the work of dedicated community volunteers. The incentive programs receive no support from foundations or other granting bodies and fundraising is a constant task. As demand grows, PFM and its partners must secure a long-term, stable funding source, address the increased demand on organizational capacity, and stave off burnout for program organizers.

Despite ongoing challenges, PFM and its volunteers, vendors and shoppers are committed to maintaining the incentive programs and broadening the programs’ collective impact in upcoming seasons.  Nutrition incentive programs grow, nourish, and inspire community in ways unparalleled by other outreach efforts, helping to ensure a future full of vibrant farmers markets and healthy citizens.

See http://www.portlandfarmersmarket.org/programs-and-services/snap-participants/ for more information, including a toolkit to start a similar program in your community.

What nutrition incentive program users say:

“This [program] has helped my son connect to veggies that he would not eat if he could not personalize himself with the farmers. It has … extend[ed] our food stamps further through the month … It has been a savior for us at a time of need for our family.”

“This program is a huge blessing for my family. We are flat broke, so getting $10 of value at $5 cost is HUGE! When I get my job back, I will donate to this program!”

“I really appreciate the program. It puts high quality and organic produce within my financial reach.”
“This is amazing…help me help the farmer…help me eat more fresh produce.”

“I think this program is a great way to get people to eat healthier (and more delicious) food while helping out the community. Thank you so much!”

Are you an FMC member who’d like to write for the market beet?  Next edition’s submission deadline is March 28th. E-mail submit@farmersmarketcoalition.org with your story idea by March 1.

About Portland Farmers Market
Founded in 1992, Portland Farmers Market operates vibrant farmers markets that contribute to the success of local food growers and producers, strengthen the food economy and serve as community gathering places. The local 501(c)6 nonprofit employs five full-time and four part-time employees who manage six weekly farmers’ markets in the Portland area from March until December. The independently-run organization receives no ongoing support from government agencies. More than 26,000 shoppers purchase farm-fresh produce, baked goods, meats, cheeses, seafood and other specialty foods from more than 250 vendors at the height of the season. In addition to operating markets, Portland Farmers Market also serves as an incubator for emerging businesses, a leader of the local food movement, a source of education, a culinary focal point in the community, a cultural destination complete with musical entertainment, and a billboard for Portland’s sustainability movement. To learn more about how Portland Farmers Market aims to grow, nourish and inspire the community, become a Twitter follower, Facebook fan and visit www.portlandfarmersmarket.org.

About Anna Curtin
As Outreach & Education Specialist, Anna is charged with building and maintaining relationships within Portland Farmers Market communities and fostering awareness about the organization’s six distinct markets. This includes working with like-minded parties to strengthen our regional food economy, organizing Market education initiatives, and planning food celebration events throughout the market season. A native of rural upstate New York, Anna grew up eating from the family garden and wild woods of the Adirondack Mountains. Her search for outdoor adventures, wholesome food, and warmer winters led her to settle in the Rose City where she accumulated a wealth of public education, sales and administrative experience before joining the PFM staff in 2007. Prior to joining the PFM family, Anna was a dedicated Market volunteer for a number of years.