By Jesse Cooke and Keith DeMello
Nutrition among Hawaii families is as important as ever, as grocers and food chains grapple with the long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on their operations and the tremendous disruption to the islands’ food distribution network.
Programs such as DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks provide a lifeline to local families by helping them bring home healthy local produce while supporting local farmers. The program is a pilot initiative administered by The Food Basket, Hawaii island’s food bank, in partnership with the Hawaii Good Food Alliance, that leverages the federal food stamps program known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Double Up Food Bucks literally doubles the value of benefits from SNAP spent on local produce at participating retail grocers.
It’s a triple-win because the program empowers low-income consumers to eat more healthy, supports local farmers with gaining new customers, and directs more local food dollars here in Hawaii. In 2018, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded study reported that about 50 percent of children across the nation have been on food stamps at some point by the age of 20.
“It’s huge – on a lot of fronts – to the local economy and to the farmers,” said Kristin Frost Albrecht, executive director of The Food Basket. “Low income households don’t always have access to nutritious food, and through the DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks, many have access to locally grown nutritious food.
“It also improves food security on the island and the whole state. One local farmer added four green houses as a result of program.”
The Double Up Food Bucks program is about to go statewide. Times Supermarkets has joined longstanding partner KTA Super Stores as the second major supermarket to sign onto the program to increase access to fresh, locally sourced food.
Approached prior to the coronavirus crisis, Times expedited onboarding and is working through Point-of-Sale software compatibility to ensure a seamless process for customers. Times anticipates rolling out the program in May.
“It is very important for Times to partner with The Food Basket and support a program that will both encourage SNAP beneficiaries make healthier lifestyle choices while simultaneously promoting sustainability for the local Hawaii farming industry,” Chris Borden, president of Times Supermarkets. “This initiative addresses two growing concerns that our community and lawmakers here in Hawaii have been struggling with for a very long time.”
Over the last two years on Hawaii Island, KTA helped pioneer the program, with the current system representing its second iteration.
“We are both privileged and honored to have been afforded the opportunity to participate in The Food Basket’s ‘DA BUX’ (Double Up Food Bucks) program,” said Toby Taniguchi, KTA president and chief operating officer. “We are extremely happy to be able to assist The Food Basket in supporting local agriculture, while at the same time, making healthy fruits and vegetables more readily available to DA BUX participants!”
What’s next for the program?
SNAP works by providing assistance to eligible, low-income individuals and families via an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card that can be used at grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and others. The Food Basket is working with the Hawaii Department of Human Services to issue to SNAP households their own Double Up Food Bucks card, complete with a universal code for scanning, to be presented at checkout along with their EBT card. This new feature will streamline in-store processes and has the potential to reduce unnecessary physical contact involved in transactions — a positive since aspects of social distancing may become part of the new norm.
Coordinators are also hoping to expand the program to farmers’ markets.
“As a food bank, we believe a strong ag-based economy is a resilient one,” Albrecht said. “There’s a huge growing group of young farmers. Many get their start at farmers’ markets and stands, and a lot move on to selling to directly to grocers.”
This year for the first time, participating sites include farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSAs), grocery stores, and mobile markets participating through the following organizations:
- Kokua Kalihi Valley Health Clinic
- Malama Kauai
- MAO Organic Farms
- Sustainable Molokai
- The Food Basket – Hawaii Island’s Food Bank
- Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center
In future years, the plan is to expand to additional markets, with a focus on serving areas of high need across all islands.
Sustaining the program
The Double Up Food Bucks program received vital funding with last year’s passage of Senate Bill 390, signed into law as Act 153 of 2019, appropriating $50,000 per year for the next two years.
The Food Basket, which received a federal grant in support of the program, also received a commitment for two $25,000 grants, one in 2019 and the other in 2020, provided through the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation. Since then, as a result of the increased need surrounding the coronavirus crisis, an additional $50,000 has been committed from the fund. The Double Up Food Bucks program is still in the early implementation stages, but it is expanding thanks to the foundational support of KTA and now expansion statewide with Times. The program could drive as much as $4 million in additional local produce purchases in the state of Hawaii next year.
“The State of Hawaii Department of Human Services continues to serve residents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic without interruption, and we are honored to be a supporter of the Double Up Food Bucks program,” Scott Nakasone, assistant administrator of the department’s Benefit, Employment Support Services Division. “Now more than ever, it is so important to stay healthy and eat healthy, and this program helps individuals and families to have more access to fresh produce and nutritious food options.”
What can institutions do to help?
“They can buy locally grown product,” Albrecht explained. “They have amazing buying power, for instance with what we’re seeing with the Aina Pono Farm-to-School program feeding students with locally grown food. We know the more we can educate the public about local produce, such as ulu, the more we will improve health and develop tastes for local items.”
Retail grocers or statewide chains interested in this worthy program may contact the program through its website at doubleuphawaii.org.
Individuals may also directly donate to the DA BUX Double Up Food Bucks program through The Food Basket’s Good Food Fund for Everyone Fund. All monies go toward the program, providing additional nutrition. For more information, visit www.hawaiifoodbasket.org.
To learn more about Department of Human Services programs and benefits, please visit humanservices.hawaii.gov.
Part of the Ulupono Initiative team, Jesse Cooke is vice president of investments and analytics and Keith DeMello is director of communications and community.