Omaha’s Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition has been selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lead a four-year, $31 million effort to provide evaluation, technical assistance and training for 22 nutrition incentive programs across the country.
It’s the largest-ever grant for the independent, nonprofit research center, established in 1973.
The 22 incentive programs all are intended to help those who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, increase the amount of nutritious fruits and vegetables they purchase for themselves and their families. SNAP formerly was known as food stamps.
Examples are Double Up Food Bucks programs that double the value of SNAP dollars spent on fresh produce at participating grocery stores and markets and produce prescription programs that allow health care providers and assistance agencies to give people vouchers to help them purchase healthy foods.
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Such efforts, which began as a few pilot programs about a decade ago, were made permanent — and expanded — under the 2018 farm bill. The goal of the grant will be to make sure the programs, scattered across 21 states and the District of Columbia, help people eat better and are cost-effective.
While none of the programs to be evaluated are based in Nebraska or Iowa, the two states do have their own versions. The Omaha Farmers Market, for instance, offers Double Up Food Bucks at its Old Market and Aksarben locations. And Healthy Harrison County in Iowa administers a food prescription program sponsored by CHI Health, which operates a hospital in Missouri Valley. The program also provides free transportation to farmers markets in the county.
Not only can nutrition incentive programs help low-income families, they also can benefit local economies and local farmers, said Amy Yaroch, the Gretchen Swanson Center’s executive director.
“It’s so incredibly important to have a program like this,” she said. “It’s a win across the board.”
While the center won’t retain all of the grant funds, it will manage the award and lead efforts to evaluate and measure the incentive programs. Fair Food Network, the other lead partner, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, will provide training and technical assistance. The two organizations will be supported by a coalition of partners and experts.
Yaroch said the center’s role is important for Nebraska and the Midwest because of the size of the grant and the importance of agriculture to the region.
The award also recognizes the center’s expertise in evaluating such programs. In 2018, the center led a study funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study’s findings informed the farm bill. The center has been the independent evaluator for Fair Food Network’s Michigan Double Up Food Bucks program for the past five years.
“We’ve been really building the base to get here,” Yaroch said.
The idea behind nutrition incentive programs is to give people better access to fresh fruits and vegetables rather than to restrict less healthy choices, such as pop.
Early results indicate that participants in the programs are buying and eating more fruits and vegetables. The next step, Yaroch said, will be to figure out how to measure other health outcomes across programs.
Through the grant, the partners will work with the groups running the incentive programs to help them build an approach that will work over the four years.
Said Yaroch, “What an opportunity to have an impact on a program that has been built in as a permanent part of the farm bill.”
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