One of my favorite bipartisan bills signed into law this year was Senate Bill 1245. When I learned that less than 1% of SNAP benefits were going to local Arizona farmers, I knew it was time for a change. SB 1245 improves access to fresh, local produce: a bipartisan win-win for local farmers and hard-working families!
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It’s not often you hear bipartisan support at the state Capitol to increase spending on social welfare. But it’s happening. Supporters say the program will provide low-income Arizonans with more nutritional food and boost the bottom lines for local farmers.
On a recent Saturday morning at the Uptown Farmers Market in Phoenix, people surrounded booths featuring locally grown produce.
Beneath a large white canopy set up by Blue Sky Organic Farms, customers sniffed strawberries, contemplated carrots, and gazed at greens — lots of greens.
“We have our mixed green salads,” said Bob Hedrick, Blue Sky’s market manager. “We have wild baby arugula, baby spinach, eight or 10 different heads of lettuce, chards, kales.”
Hedrick and his family operate three farmer’s markets in Phoenix and one in Gilbert. He said customers run the gamut.
“I see people that you can very well tell are spending the only money they have this week to buy groceries with us to the people who could go anywhere they want and buy anything they want and they still come to us,” he said.
Like the other 14 local farmers at the Uptown Market, Blue Sky Organic accepts SNAP. Commonly known as food stamps, SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Brittany Celebrano works for the Uptown Farmers Market and helps people use SNAP benefits, including a program called “Double Up Food Bucks” The program doubles the value of SNAP benefits to spend on Arizona grown produce.
“So, if you swipe for $6, we’d match you another six and you’d walk away with $12 to shop to a maximum we can match you $20 for fruits and vegetables,” she said.
Double Up Food Bucks started in Michigan in 2009 and launched in Arizona in August 2016. Administered by a nonprofit called Pinnacle Prevention, the program is funded for two years through a $400,000 federal grant and another $400,000 in cash and in-kind support from 20 local organizations.
When considering the next round of grants, the Trump administration has said it’s interested in seeing a commitment from states. And that’s led to an unlikely bill at the legislature.
“If we are going to be spending food stamp dollars this is where we need to spend them,” Sen. Kate Brophy McGee told her colleagues.
She sold all her Democratic colleagues and nearly all her fellow Republicans on this idea: Arizona should kick in $400,000 for a produce incentive program to be spent only if matching funds are contributed.
While a handful of Senate Republicans voted against McGee’s bill, fiscal conservative John Kavanaugh explained his support during a committee hearing.
“I just want to say I’m voting for this bill because it promotes farmers markets,” he said. “I’m so sick and tired of going to farmers markets and having no farmers there.”
Supporters like Dr. Charlton Wilson, chief medical officer for Mercy Care Plan told lawmakers that eating better can save on healthcare costs.
“We know that fresh fruits and vegetables, in increasing those, helps prevent chronic disease and illnesses like cancer,” said Wilson.
Sarah Schweiger uses the Double Up Food Bucks Program and said it allows her to experiment and learn about foods.
“I think that it is very valuable, to us a society, that the Double Up Program gives low — income persons the ability to buy food without preservatives and pesticides,” she said. “Without Double Up, the choices for fruits and vegetables become much more limited and less healthy.
More than 20 farmers markets — from Tuba City to the north and Nogales to the south — participate in the program. And, a mobile produce market called Farm Express makes more than 80 stops a month in areas of Phoenix and Tempe without access to traditional farmers markets.
One in five Arizonans receives SNAP benefits. In the last fiscal year, the federal government provided more than $1.3 billion in Arizona payments. People behind the Double Up Program say less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits flow to local growers.
“I try to get them the best bang for their buck,” said Bob Hedrick.
The market manager understands what it’s like to be financially strapped. At one time, his family relied on WIC, a program which provides nutritional support for women, infants and children.
“I look at it differently because, yes, I know where that money comes from and I know what they had to go through to get it,” he said. “It’s not like you just walk into an office and they hand it over to you. You have to prove a lot to get it.”
Hedrick estimates 10 percent of market sales comes from SNAP and WIC, a number he’d like to see grow as fast as winter lettuce.
Bipartisan support for Senate Bill 1245 was expressed during legislative testimony before the #RedForEd teacher walkout and before Gov. Doug Ducey told state lawmakers to send him a budget that includes higher teacher pay. When asked whether she had funding concerns in light of the new budget expectations, Adrienne Udarbe, executive director of Pinnacle Prevention, provided the following statement:
“Both food security and education are basic human rights. Both are root cause issues that inhibit our ability to achieve wellbeing and progress as a society. Addressing the education funding needs and food insecurity needs are priorities. An investment in both compliments each effort and maximizes outcomes. I am hopeful that our Legislature can identify a win-win solution.”