The Newport-based non-profit, Green Mountain Farm-to-School (GMFTS), in partnership with the national non-profit, Wholesome Wave, is making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to low-income residents of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coupon Program. This innovative approach to food access offers all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or 3SquaresVT recipients in Essex and Orleans counties access to coupons to purchase fresh produce.
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coupon Program is in its second year of a three-year grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Food Insecurity and Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program. The program aims to help upwards of 3000 low-income households in the Northeast Kingdom access fresh produce while supporting their local grocery stores, strengthening the local economy, and driving business to area farms.
SNAP recipients can redeem coupons at five participating grocery stores; Vista Foods in Newport, C&C Supermarket in Barton, Kingdom Market in Island Pond, Craftsbury General Store in Craftsbury, and Ray’s Market in Irasburg. To access coupons, recipients make a qualifying purchase at one of the participating grocery stores and receive two $5 coupons to use at any of the participating stores on a future purchase of fresh fruits and vegetables. Coupons can only be used on fresh fruits and veggies- not canned, dried or frozen produce. There is no limit to the number of coupons an individual can receive and use, as long as the coupons are used during the duration of the program (December 1st, 2017 through April 30th, 2018).
The five participating stores are encouraged to market local, healthful crops from area farms to shoppers in an effort to increase local food sales. In the program’s pilot year, 40% of stores reported an increase in local food sales. The use of free, ready-to-go shelf-tags, register signs, table-top displays, and educational flyers from the GMFTS-run program, Vermont Harvest of the Month, supports these efforts along with in-store taste-tests and cooking demonstrations featuring local food.
This year, $60,000 in coupons are available to SNAP recipients to redeem, up from $30,000 last year. “The increase in purchasing power that the growth from last year creates, coupled with the commitment from our partners at participating stores makes this a really powerful program,” says Catherine Cusack, Assistant Director at Green Mountain Farm-to-School, “we expect more households to take advantage of the program this year - getting more healthy food on the table.”
Last year, GMFTS saw an 85% redemption rate on the coupons they distributed, resulting in $25,500 being spent by consumers. Over 60% of respondents in a survey conducted during the pilot year said the program changed the type of foods they choose to buy. One participant noted: “We got to try vegetables that we normally wouldn’t buy without cash coming out of our SNAP benefits.” An expecting mother noted, “I was able to have vegetables through most of my pregnancy.”
Vermont’s rural Orleans and Essex counties face the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity rates in the state. Over a quarter of children in the region are considered food insecure, making access to fresh fruits and vegetables a daily question for many families. “This program helps fill a gap in food access and address food insecurity in the region.” says Executive Director of GMFTS, James Hafferman, “The need and the want for fresh fruit and vegetables is clearly there in our communities. We are glad that through this grant we are able to increase access to fresh, healthful foods for low-income individuals and drive consumer demand for local produce - supporting the local economy.”
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont supported Green Mountain Farm to School and Wholesome Wave’s FINI grant proposal with a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack in December 2016. “Last year I supported Green Mountain Farm to School and its partnership with Wholesome Wave as they piloted a new way to support families helped by SNAP to stretch their food budgets while boosting the economic viability of our local producers. Pairing SNAP with incentives to use local Vermont fruits and vegetables makes sense, and it’s a winning scenario for everyone. I am proud that Green Mountain Farm to School in its partnership with Wholesome Wave again has been selected to continue its extraordinary work of connecting our children, farms and communities throughout Vermont and New England.”
The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Coupon program directly supports Vermont Farm to Plate Strategic Goal 15: To decrease the number of food-insecure Vermonters and increase access to healthy, affordable food for Vermonters of all income levels.