The dollar doesn’t stretch as far as it used to, a common saying goes. That’s especially true when it comes to eating healthy. But the Hometown Market in Red Cloud is the latest Nebraska grocery store to make it a little easier to bring fresher, more nutritious foods to the table.
In October, owners Danny and Val Benge implemented the Double Up Food Bucks program. Led by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Vanessa Wielenga, a certified nutrition specialist and extension educator with the Nebraska Regional Food Systems Initiative, the program matches dollar for dollar what customers spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, up to $20 per day. Funds are provided to customers eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, via coupons or a loyalty card.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to buy a business like this was to have an impact on the community,” said Danny Benge, who purchased the market with his wife in 2018. “Obviously, the Double Up Food Bucks will be something that can do that.”
Encouraging a healthier lifestyle is at the heart of the program.
“We are helping stores and farmers markets sell more of their healthiest items and really encouraging customers to spend money on those items,” Wielenga said.
Founded in 2008 by the Fair Food Network in Michigan, Double Up Food Bucks came to Nebraska in 2016.
“If you have a child at home who likes apples, essentially instead of getting five apples, you can get 10,” Benge said. “I hope that people take advantage of it, and they should, because it’s basically free money and free food.”
This is a huge boon to those wishing to eat healthier, because, according to a study conducted by the Fair Food Network, the No. 1 barrier to eating healthy is cost.
“We like to call it a triple win,” Wielenga said. “Customers get more fresh food on their tables for their families, we support local farmers, and we bring more customers to the market.”
What began in only two locations in 2016 is now in 12 grocery stores and farmers markets across the state. Earlier this summer, both the Seward Farmer’s Market on the Square and Kearney Area Farmers Market began offering Double Up Food Bucks to their SNAP customers.
Double Up Food Bucks is also a nutrition education program. With taste-testing events and shared recipes, customers not only learn what to eat, but how to prepare foods. The events have been especially successful in stores that sell culturally specific foods targeted toward underserved populations.
“We now do nutrition education in the store,” Wielenga said. “We’ve created a whole new suite of materials that focus on Nebraska-grown produce.”
Clarissa Feldman, treasurer for the Kearney market, took nutrition education to heart this year.
“We did some food demos,” she said. “We handed out quite a few coupons. We did some watermelon taste-testing so people could taste different varieties. We did some salads. And we tried to use everything we could from the farmers market.”
The Double Up Food Bucks program recently received a $317,000 grant from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to expand into additional communities and markets.
“We really like to focus on our local economies, making sure we’re working with our local, independently owned grocery stores,” Wielenga said. “Again, just increasing food security for everyone in the community.”
Benge knows that in rural Nebraska, it takes a community to raise a community.
“It’s to help people in the community,” he said. “We’re not going to get rich off of it, so it’s just another reason for people in the community to shop local.”