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'Bounty Bucks' provides cash for fresh, local foods

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse | 6/22/2010, 6:46 p.m.

Holding a thick wad of green bills, Barry Twomey shook his head — no one had taken the free money all day.

As Interim Director of Mission Hill Main Streets, Twomey is in charge of the neighborhood’s Boston’s Bounty Bucks program, a new initiative that doubles the value of food stamp spending at local farmers’ markets.

For each food stamp dollar spent, Twomey will give the customer a Bounty Buck — a green, bill-looking voucher for a dollar of additional food.

“We’re trying to promote healthy food, and this helps people afford it,” he said.

But on the first day this season that the Mission Hill farmers’ market offered Bounty Bucks, no one requested them — so they sat in Twomey’s office. Unless customers request the funding, it will go unused.

Bounty Bucks match, dollar-for-dollar, food stamp spending at local farmers’ markets — so $10 of food stamps will buy $20 of produce.

The program, co-sponsored by The Food Project and the City of Boston, will help fight the stigma that farmers’ markets are overpriced, according to Michael Iceland, outreach coordinator of The Food Project.

The Food Project piloted the program for two years, starting with just three markets in Boston, Iceland explained. By working with the City of Boston and farmers’ market managers, The Food Project helped to install electronic payment machines at farmers’ markets to support EBT.

In 2009, the program expanded to 14 farmers’ markets and provided nearly $10,000 of matching funds. The Food Project’s goal, said Iceland, is to bring Boston Bounty Bucks to all farmers’ markets in the city.

“The Boston Bounty Bucks program is working toward an outcome where all families can have access to fresh, local food at affordable prices and where the distribution of healthy foods in lower-income, urban neighborhoods is financially sustainable for local farmers,” explained a report published by The Food Project.

Funding for Bounty Bucks comes from the Mayor’s Fresh Food Fund, and private grants from Project Bread, Farm Aid and Wholesome Wave. Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based group, has sponsored a similar initiative, the Double Value Coupon Program, in 12 states across the U.S.

As overweight and obesity rates skyrocket, Boston Bounty Bucks represent an important step toward healthy food accessibility in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Recent research at Boston Medical Center found that for the 82,000 SNAP participants in Boston, food stamp benefits were simply not enough to maintain a healthy diet. In Boston, the average cost of keeping a nutritious diet, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Thrifty Food Plan, is $752 per month for a family of four.

However, the maximum amount of SNAP benefits a family of four can receive is $542 per month.

This leaves a $2,250 annual gap between SNAP participants and a nutritious diet.

Since the release of this report in 2008, the maximum monthly SNAP benefit has increased — but so have food prices.

The Bounty Bucks program attempts to close this gap by providing the additional funds necessary for SNAP participants to obtain healthy foods.

According to a survey conducted by The Food Project, 87 percent of surveyed SNAP customers consume more fresh produce because of Bounty Bucks, and 84 percent reported the program as an “important” or “very important” factor in these purchases.

In addition to helping low-income customers, the Bounty Bucks program helps local farmers by increasing their business.

“This program is a dual effort to enable all residents of Boston to have access to the local bounty of farm products available at city farmers’ markets and to strengthen the economy of local farmers,” The Food Project’s website explains.

Massachusetts is home to 7,691 farms — 80 percent of which are family-owned — and more than 13,000 farm workers. More than 200 farmers’ markets populate the Commonwealth.

In Boston, residents can find farmers’ markets open each day of the week and in virtually every neighborhood. Locations of participating farmers’ markets include: Boston City Hall, Boston Medical Center, Codman Square, Copley Square, Dewey Square, Dudley Town Common, Field’s Corner, Grove Hall, Mission Hill, 1062 Blue Hill Ave. in Dorchester and 446 W. Broadway in South Boston.

For a complete listing of participating farmer’s markets in Boston, visit http://www.mass.gov/agr/mass grown/docs/farmers-mkt-directory.pdf or call 617-427-7399.