On the Lege

by Alex Canepa

Feeding Texans Better food Austin’s own Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) has proposed a bill before the Texas Legislature that could change the way low-income Texans shop for food. If passed, House Bill 1616 would create a pilot program allowing recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “food stamps,” to double the value of their benefits if they shop for produce at farmers markets.

Under the proposed Double Dollars pilot program, low-income families would have the option to, for instance, spend $40 throughout the course of a month at a supermarket or $80 on fruits and vegetables at their local farmers market. By leveraging public and private resources, the Double Dollars program takes aim at so-called “food deserts,” that is, census tracts with high concentrations of poverty and with little or no access to healthy food vendors.

After the success of a similar program—the 2009 Double Up Food Bucks program in Michigan—SNAP incentives received a boost in 2014 when the U.S. Congress appropriated $100 million for the newly created Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, which provides funds to organizations across America that offer SNAP incentives. The strategy embodied by SNAP incentives—enticing people to eat healthily as opposed to punishing them for unhealthy eating—is a dramatically different approach than the spate of high-profile efforts by local governments to either ban or impose “sin taxes” on trans-fat, soda and other junk foods. So far, the carrot has proved more politically palatable than the stick. The fracas that ensued after New York City and Berkeley, California, imposed soda taxes stands in sharp contrast to the broad-based, bipartisan support that SNAP incentives received in the U.S. Congress. Indeed, SNAP incentives were one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans were able to see eye-to-eye during the 113th Congress.

Incentivizing people to shop at farmers markets not only wins the approval of SNAP recipients, but farmers as well. Michigan farmers—the first to reap the benefits of the program—report outselling farmers in neighboring states without the program. In a city like Austin, which takes pride in supporting local businesses, SNAP incentives would allow both shoppers and taxpayers to keep their dollars local.

Fiscal conservatives in the Texas Legislature may take heart in the prospect that SNAP incentives could save Texas money. Taxpayers in the U.S. currently spend upwards of $100 billion per year treating obesity-related conditions that arise from poor diets. Because Double Dollars funds can only be used to purchase fruits and vegetables at the markets, the increased consumption of produce among SNAP recipients has the potential to drive down the costs of Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In 2013, 93 percent of participants in Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks program reported eating more produce, as well as experimenting with a variety of new fruits and vegetables because of incentive dollars.

While SNAP incentives are not a panacea for all of America’s food ills, they are an innovative policy solution that both stimulates local economies and combats food insecurity.