Popular Nutrition Program for Farmers and Families at Risk in 2018 Farm Bill (Correction)

February 12, 2018
Photo: Erik Scheel/CC0 BY SA, Pexels
Sarah Reinhardt
Senior Analyst, Food Systems and Health

CORRECTION: In our original post, we inaccurately stated that the Trump administration’s budget zeroed out the FINI budget, as well as the HFFI budget. The president’s budget, not uncommonly, simply did not address those programs as they’re among those that would expire in 2018 without reauthorization.

Late this morning, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year. By and large, the proposed cuts to nutrition programs outlined in An American Budget are devastating, if unsurprising. Much like the administration’s 2018 budget proposal, this one includes a 21.5 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the 2019 fiscal year, and a total of $213 billion less over the course of 10 years—cuts that would leave millions of children and families hungry. Though the budget did not address funding for the “tiny but mighty” programs that would expire in 2018 without reauthorization in the next farm bill, it gave us a taste of what may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Among these programs is the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program, which funds community efforts to help low-income families purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables straight from farmers. And although FINI was just created in the 2014 Farm Bill, it has made fast friends. As Wendy Peters Moschetti of LiveWell Colorado, a group that coordinated statewide partnerships to implement a FINI project in 2016, put it: “This program helps to stretch people’s food dollars and keep fruits and vegetables on their plates—which are often the foods that get dropped when living on a tight budget—all while directing these dollars to our farmers and keeping money in our communities.” What’s not to like?

But despite the strong public and bipartisan support the program has typically received, the president’s budget serves as a powerful reminder of this administration’s priorities—which include public health rarely, if at all. And as we anticipate the release of a new marker bill that will propose FINI’s reauthorization in the next farm bill, it is also an important reminder that our voices and our support for these programs are as critical as ever.

Why do we need FINI?

If you’re familiar with the nutrition programs in the Farm Bill, you might be thinking: Doesn’t SNAP already help low-income families buy healthy food?

And you’re right—sort of. SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, helps low-income households bridge the gap between what they have and what they need in their monthly food budget. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children, who make up about 4 in 10 SNAP users—and protected many from the effects of hunger and food insecurity.

But even if the president weren’t proposing to take a hatchet to SNAP, that program’s benefits rarely go far enough to help families afford a complete diet, much less a complete healthy diet—which often comes with a higher price tag. Research shows that families using SNAP frequently run out of benefits by the end of the month, resulting in as much as a 25 percent decrease in caloric intake. And a recent study by researchers at UCS and North Carolina State University found that SNAP benefits—even when used only to supplement household food budgets, as the program was intended to function—may only help families cover between 43 and 60 percent of what it costs to achieve a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines.

As diet-related diseases continue to impact the lives of more than half of all American adults, with low-income populations disproportionately bearing the consequences, a number of solutions have been proposed to enable SNAP users to make healthier choices. These include raising benefit levels and restricting the purchase of certain unhealthy foods—the former of which is a political Hail Mary at present; the latter of which has become a subject of heated debate, and was rejected anew by the USDA just this month.

One thing that has worked, both in politics and in practice? Incentives to help families afford fresh, healthy foods—often, right from the farmers who grew them.

A nutrition program that’s good for families and farmers

FINI awards competitive grants to nonprofit and state/local government agencies for programs that provide point-of-sale incentives, such as rebates or bonuses, to SNAP users purchasing fruits and vegetables.

For example, Double Up Food Bucks, a FINI-funded program operating in over 200 farmers markets and retail outlets throughout Michigan, gives shoppers an extra $10 to spend on local fruits and veggies for every $10 in SNAP benefits they spend at participating stores and markets. And while FINI grant recipients aren’t required, only encouraged, to apply the incentives to local produce, most do—and their farmers and food producers are better for it. In its first five years, Double Up Food Bucks helped SNAP customers purchase more than 3 million pounds of healthy food and directed more than $5 million in purchases to Michigan farmers and vendors. During that time, SNAP sales at farmers markets statewide grew to $1.7 million—putting Michigan among the top five states in the nation on that measure.

A 2015 evaluation of FINI-funded programs showed that between 74 and 94 percent of SNAP farmers market shoppers participating in an incentive program reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and one California study found that over three quarters of program participants reported improved health among their families. Meanwhile, between 55 and 74 percent of participating farmers reported making more money as a direct result of the program, and many noted that increased sales had allowed them to expand their operation.

Let your elected officials know where you stand

Here’s the good news: The White House gets to propose a budget, but it’s ultimately Congress that holds the purse strings. Want to make sure we secure a win for this win-win program? First, be loud and clear about your opposition to the funding cuts to SNAP that are outlined in the proposed budget: without nutrition assistance programs, programs like FINI can’t work. Second, tell your senators and representatives you support SNAP and the reauthorization of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program in the 2018 Farm Bill. They’ll have an opportunity to act soon, as a marker bill supporting the program’s reauthorization is expected to be introduced within the month, and it will help to hear from you. And third, check out the nearest FINI-funded market near you to reward yourself with some farm-fresh treats.