A recently developed nutrition incentive program is proving successful at making healthy local food more accessible to low-income shoppers. Through the program, launched in 2016 by Maine Farmland Trust, low-income customers have purchased $100,000 of bonus local fruits and vegetables at 20 participating retail markets throughout the state.

The program is part of Maine Farmland Trust’s 3-year Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive USDA grant intended to increase SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as food stamps) recipients’ purchase and consumption of healthy food, and also made possible with support from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation. The Trust’s program is designed to help more Mainers buy local food: for every $5 purchased on local products with SNAP/EBT, customers get another $5 to purchase local fruits and vegetables. “It’s like winning the lottery every time I go to the store,” said one customer who uses the program.

Nutrition incentive programs provide bonus fruits and vegetables to low-income shoppers, and have been used in Maine for close to a decade, primarily at farmers’ markets. They have shown to be effective in growing low-income access to local foods, as well as growing the customer base for locally-grown food. In 2016, Maine Farmland Trust expanded the successful concept to local food retailers, such as food co-ops and farm stores, with the goal of connecting the dots between Maine farmers who sell their products wholesale and customers who want to buy more fresh, local food but have limited financial capacity and use SNAP/EBT.

Heide Purinton-Brown, the farmer at Toddy Pond Farm in Monroe, says that she and her family  “love that our local food co-op, The Belfast Co-op, offers nutrition incentives. It is a win for our farm and fellow farmers in that more people are encouraged to buy local products (including Toddy Pond Farm yogurt and kefir), great for our community that folks can utilize these programs to support our local coops and small businesses, and fantastic that families get to see their benefits stretched further and are able to enjoy fresh local fruits and veggies grown in their communities.”

Participating stores have been able to integrate this program into their existing systems, and are excited to be part of something that helps the broader community. As Shawn Menard, General Manager at the Gardiner Food Co-op, notes, “The Maine Harvest Bucks nutrition incentive program has enabled us to successfully reach a larger percentage of our community. By offering incentives to SNAP users who purchase local products, we have advanced in our mission to be open to everyone.”

There’s economic benefit, too—one participating market saw sales of fruits and vegetables to SNAP/EBT customers double in the first year of running the program, and other stores are experiencing similar trends. SNAP sales of other local products, such as dairy and meat, have also increased. This translates into increased sales for all of the local farmers selling to those markets. The $100,000 in incentive dollars that MFT’s program has generated equates to $100,000 more local fruits and vegetables that low-income Mainers were able to bring home thanks to this program, and $100,000 that goes back into the local economy.

Looking ahead, the Trust hopes to attract more new customers to participating markets. “Outreach to new customers is a challenge,” says Shannon Grimes, Nutrition Incentive Project Manager at the Trust. “We’ve been expanding and streamlining our program over the past year—now we need more people to help us spread the word that this is out there as a resource. Many stores and markets continue to have an abundance of local produce throughout the fall, and fall is a great time to stock up on goods for the winter.”

Nutrition incentives are also available at farmers’ market, CSA farms, and more around the state in collaboration with other partner organizations. For more information about where to find sites near you, visit maineharvestbucks.org, or contact Shannon, shannon@mainefarmlandtrust.org or 207-338-6575.