Metro, News

Mobile market promotes fresh produce

Food on the Move incentivizes purchasing fresh food, targets areas with poor food access

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, April 12, 2019

Rhode Island is a state so small that a car can cover its length in under an hour, making it an ideal region for trucking fresh produce to underserved communities and piloting food access programs.

Food on the Move is a mobile market based out of Providence that uses federal nutrition subsidies to incentivize the purchase of fresh produce in communities with poor food access like senior citizens homes or low-income apartment complexes. The program offers a 100 percent incentive for customers — for every $1 of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds they spend, they get another $1 from the program to spend on fruits and vegetables.

Programs like Food on the Move “really help stretch your dollar. SNAP is meant to be supplemental, the amount of money you can get from SNAP is really quite low when you think about how much each family actually spends on food. And for some people, this is their entire food budget,” said Sue AnderBois, Rhode Island director of Food Strategy.

Food on the Move recently developed a model to analyze the cost of scaled-up and potentially statewide SNAP incentive programs to places like large-scale grocery stores and supermarkets. Their program, called a dashboard, is based on research from the Healthy Incentives Pilot and other incentives studies. It provides quantitative analysis to facilitate discussion with potential investors and policymakers who could help create a statewide SNAP incentives program.

Next fall, the R.I. Public Health Institute will be able to apply for federal funding that requires non-federal match funding. The new model will give them a way to estimate the costs of expanded food access programs. A hypothetical statewide incentives program would be the first of its kind, meaning that the dashboard offers a researched perspective into unknown financial territory.

“Whatever (incentives program) we design, we’ll have to justify the investment in it, and we’ll want to know what the numbers are. What are we investing in? How much money do we have to raise?” said Eliza Cohen, food access coordinator at the Rhode Island Public Health Institute.

With a statewide program, all who enroll in SNAP would have the same financial incentive to buy fresh produce regardless of where they purchase, Cohen said.

“That’s the big jump. Right now, the incentives are available at mobile markets and farmers markets, but they’re not available in grocery stores,” Cohen said. “Most people spend most of their SNAP benefits in wholesale groceries stores. And that includes small retailers at the neighborhood level and also larger grocers.” The pathway to expanding SNAP incentives will be a community process, she added.

Food on the Move will use the dashboard as a tool to collaborate with stakeholders including AnderBois, Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a food hub also offering SNAP incentives, the Food Dealer’s Association, Department of Health equity ambassadors and representatives from other state agencies.

“We could really be setting a national model,” Cohen said. “Being able to make this kind of commitment and scale up statewide could have national policy implications and put us at the forefront of the national effort to advance healthy food access in the country.” Rhode Island’s scale allows for pilot programs to be managed with an ease unavailable to larger states, meaning it could become the first state to implement such a program.

Food on the Move hopes to build on their model to analyze whether the incentives program could have a positive impact on healthcare costs by improving nutritional health. “We want to understand long-term what kind of healthcare savings this kind of program can provide for the cost that we’re putting into it,” Cohen said.

“Hunger and food scarcity don’t affect people evenly across the state. … It’s differentiated across different areas and different ethnic and racial backgrounds,” AnderBois said. “You’ve heard the phrase ‘social determinant of health.’ We’re thinking in terms of social determinants of hunger.”

Those determinants can include access to public transportation and a community’s mobility. Food on the Move recently served a senior citizens’ home that had a grocery store nearby, but the incline between the home and the store rendered it inaccessible to many of the home’s residents.