Dr. Sonya Jones, associate professor of health promotion, education, and behavior and director of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health, is the principal investigator of the COPASCities study—a study funded through the USDA Agriculture and Food Research Initiative’s Childhood Obesity Program, aimed at building community capacity for creating food systems change. SNAP healthy incentives programs are becoming more common around the country. Also known as “SNAP Double Bucks,” these programs provide financial incentives for SNAP (i.e., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets and some grocery stores.
Ms. Carrie Draper (Nutrition Center director of policy and partnership development), Dr. Holly Pope (Nutrition Center director of evaluation) and other COPASCities team members* conducted a PhotoVoice study to assess the successes, facilitators and barriers for implementing SC’s own version of a SNAP healthy incentives program, S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks. The S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks program is administered by the S.C. Department of Social Services (DSS) with bonus funds the state received from the federal government.
Six farmers markets in locations throughout the state who already participate in the SNAP program (i.e., accepted a SNAP/EBT card for fruit and vegetable purchases) participated in a pilot implementation of the S.C. SNAP Healthy Bucks program. At participating locations, SNAP recipients could receive a $5 Healthy Bucks token for use at the farmers market after spending $2.50 of their SNAP benefits on fresh fruits or vegetables.
The team used PhotoVoice, a community participatory methodology involving taking photos followed by facilitated conversation, to document the actual experiences and perspectives of SNAP beneficiaries and farmers engaged in the project. “This research methodology provides an opportunity for participants to convey much more than they could through a typical survey or interview in order to influence community and policy change,” says Ms. Draper. SNAP recipients and farmers took photographs and provided descriptive captions to illustrate both the benefits and challenges of engaging in the S.C. Healthy Bucks Program.
Their insights, which corroborated findings from other SNAP healthy incentive studies, revealed that recipients indeed increased their fruit and vegetable intake, and local farmers benefited from increased sales. Recipients also reported that the program enabled them to instill a sense of community within their children and access to produce that would not have been available otherwise. The project illuminated some challenges as well.
Participants noted that unreliable transportation often posed a significant barrier to accessing local farmers markets. Lack of awareness and/or limitations related to farmers market locations, hours, produce options, receptive attitudes toward SNAP and actual acceptance of SNAP benefits presented additional challenges. An underlying cause that impacts many of these obstacles is the absence of adequate representation by SNAP recipients and/or advocates on the advisory boards that make decisions about these particular issues.
The team recommends ensuring that SNAP recipients are a part of each farmers market’s decision-making structure. They also suggest the creation of a “SNAP Champions” network, expansion of the SNAP Healthy Bucks Program, increased marketing/outreach, development of campaigns to recruit other farmers markets and individual farmers to participate, enrollment of all eligible families into the SNAP program and adjustments to farmers markets logistics (e.g., hours, location) to make them more accessible to recipients.
More than $1.24 billion is spent annually to provide SNAP benefits to South Carolinians yet only about 25 of the 180 community-based farmers markets throughout S.C. are set up to accept SNAP benefits. The team is disseminating the findings from the pilot investigation to build awareness about the program and help inform expansion efforts. They want to ensure that SNAP recipients’ perspectives are heard. S.C. DSS will expand the program to at least 18 locations and will include direct selling farmers and a produce-buying club in the program. The amount of “Healthy Bucks” a SNAP recipient will be increased to $10.