Doubling SNAP Dollars Increases Good Health During Pandemic Times
In early 2020 Western North Carolina (WNC) resident Lisa Meyers was making ends meet for herself and her two children, age 8 and 10, by working evening shifts at a local diner and working part-time at the French Broad Food Co+Op. “The diner shifts paid the heft of the bills and the co-op job gave me a food discount, which made it possible for us to eat healthy, nutritious food. Cooking has always been a fun thing for my family. The kids love to be involved because it makes them feel empowered and even excited about eating vegetables,” said Lisa. Time spent in the kitchen preparing meals was a fun way for the kids to learn things from their homeschool curriculum too, such as math and even chemistry lessons. “They have learned a lot and love to make a variety of things. Right now they are having fun making a Kale salad with dried fruit, nuts, onion, and garlic.”
Like millions of Americans, their lives changed in March 2020. The diner closed for a short time and when it reopened things were very different. “We served food outside in a tent, and while I loved working at that diner, the risks were beginning to outweigh the benefits of staying there.”
Like most waiters and waitresses Lisa was paid an hourly wage of less than three dollars and depended on tips, which were always sufficient before the pandemic but were less predictable in the new world. She found herself handling people’s plates and sharing air in a small space with no idea if she would be able to pay her bills at the end of the day: “Basically I was putting my kids and myself at risk, handling food and dishes in an outdoor tent, with no guarantee of making money.”
Weighing the pros and cons of continuing at the diner she decided to leave her job as a waitress and increased her hours at the Co+Op. “The Co-op took a lot of steps to protect their employees, long before other grocery stores did the same. They installed plexiglass, required masks and gloves for customers, increased sick time and provided hazard pay.” This employment change “gave me the ability to maintain my lifestyle for me and my kids.”
Lisa is of course not alone in facing major lifestyle changes and uncertainty this year. According to a November 2020 press release from ‘North Carolina Commerce’ unemployment rates in North Carolina have nearly doubled since November 2019, from 3.6 % to 6.2%. The unemployment rate went as high as 12.9% in April, nearly three times that of April 2019.
Of the North Carolina industries which were adversely impacted, two are most relevant to Western North Carolina: manufacturing and leisure & hospitality. WNC is home to multiple manufacturing plants which have shaped the economy of the region. Visitors usually flock to WNC from all over the world to enjoy the natural beauty and thriving leisure & hospitality industry. As a result of the local unemployment increase, many WNC residents are facing the same challenges as Lisa. Local food bank Bounty and Soul reports local families will experience food insecurity by a 40% increase this year, with many families experiencing it for the first time ever.
Lisa has observed this Covid-19 fallout firsthand at her job at the Co+Op. “A lot more people are on SNAP benefits [formally known as food stamps] now because of Covid. People are hanging on by a thread.” Lisa often tells customers about the Double Up Food Bucks (DUFB), which made all the difference in her own life, giving her the freedom and flexibility to continue buying all the nutritious food she and her kids were used to eating. The DUFB program makes it possible for SNAP recipients to match the dollar value of the stamps with produce items such as canned, frozen, or fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Lisa “Co+Op employees love the DUFB program because customers with a limited budget are amazed at how much more food they can take home when they double their dollar value. It’s also nice because the automated system is very user-friendly.”
Lisa reports that customers who sign up for DUFB often end up trying new foods they wouldn’t normally eat. “A lot of people are broke so they might only have 20 dollars for veggies and they will ask staff for recipes. They end up trying new things. Like many lessons learned in 2020, the increased need and helpfulness of the DUFB are bittersweet. Lisa summed it up by saying : “It sucks that it has to be learned like this, but it is wild and sad and sweet that people are trying healthy ways of living.”
One DUFB customer at the Haywood Historic Farmers Market said:
“You can actually get things that are healthy and really good and use your SNAP benefits and Double Up Tokens and not spend that much. I make meals and people will look at my plates and say “that’s so expensive” but it was really $2.50 and you would pay like $20 for that in a restaurant…You can make ‘fancy’ food that’s really healthy for you but not spend $100 for a meal.”
The French Broad Co+Op isn’t the only place where WNC residents can access the DUFB program. Local public health organization MountainWise brought DUFB to The French Broad Co+Op as well as 3 other grocery stores and 9 farmers’ markets across WNC. MountainWise collaborates with vendors to provide funding, promotion and organization in order to launch and sustain DUFB. Abby Holmes is a Regional Health Promotion Specialist and the DUFB Project Coordinator at MountainWise. She reported that:: “From May-Sept 2020 MountainWise reimbursed [local WNC ] participating retailers $40,000 for Double Up Food Bucks redeemed by SNAP customers. A total of about 1,300 SNAP customers were served through the program. We now have 9 farmers market sites and 4 grocery store sites across 9 counties.” Funding is provided by grants from the USDA Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program and the Community Foundation of WNC.
Collaboration with farmer’s markets has been wildly successful with customers and gives a boost to the local economy, making it highly appealing to vendors as well. One customer said: “I’m very connected with the farmers market. I go every week when they start having vegetables – the Double up Food Bucks program helps so much because I can buy almost all of my weekly groceries at the market that way. It almost feels like a splurge. I can’t buy that in the grocery store”, while another put it bluntly: “The Haywood Historic farmers market with Double Up has been my saving grace.”
What’s next for Lisa Meyers, who has sustained her healthy lifestyle using DUFB and continues to sign people up at the Co+Op? She has a long-term goal to grow her own garden of vegetables and fruits with her kids. “I plan to buy some land and continue to learn about sustainability with my kids.” She isn’t the only person thinking along those lines. Another customer who uses the DUFB said: “I like the model of DUFB – I mean it’s a good incentive cause it kind of influences people to come. That’s why we came because we got twice the money than what we were after for vegetables. It’s great to be able to buy plants with Double Up Food Bucks to plant and harvest. That way people can grow their own food at home”
As for MountainWise and their regional DUFB collaboration: “Looking forward, our goal for next year is to continue supporting 14 retailers across the region in improving and expanding their DUFB programs. We would like to expand to additional retailers contingent upon securing more funding.”
Jobs are slowly coming back to WNC, and to many regions in the U.S., but recovery is estimated to be slow. In the meantime, residents continue to empower themselves by taking health into their own hands and eating well and shopping local in order to stay strong and make it through to the other side. MountainWise is one of many local organizations that is critical in building stronger, healthier communities and providing opportunities for people to do just that.