This spring, we’ll release “Innovating Michigan Healthcare: Lessons from Funding Technology in Health Since 2015,” an in-depth report on how the Health Fund is supporting technology-based projects. Our series “Tech Tuesdays” reveals some of our stories from the field—examples of Health Fund grantees incorporating technology in noteworthy and effective ways.
Fair Food Network
Innovating Technology for Double Up Healthy Food Incentives
2017 Nutrition & Healthy Lifestyles Grant Round
Nearly one in five Michiganders are food insecure—that is, they lack access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs. Research shows that making food security programs more easily accessible can improve rates of food insecurity, particularly for kids. And emerging research links these programs to improved health outcomes and lower healthcare costs. By streamlining the payment system for a popular food assistance program, the Fair Food Network leveraged technology to transform the consumer experience, helping people more easily purchase fresh, healthy foods.
The popular food assistance program, Double Up Food Bucks, provides a dollar-to-dollar match when SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) enrollees purchase fruits and vegetables. With the support of a 2017 Health Fund grant, the Fair Food Network expanded Double Up Food Bucks electronic payment technology in grocery stores and farmers markets in five regions across Michigan, including Flint, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and communities in Southeast and Southwest Michigan.
Until recently, many participating Double Up Food Bucks retailers like farmers markets used old-fashioned tokens to provide SNAP users with their matched incentive. These tokens needed to be collected, stored, and counted by retailers, and remembered by users. The Fair Food Network replaced this labor-intensive system with an electronic loyalty card. First developed and launched in Flint, the loyalty card allows consumers to use their incentive benefits and the purchasing power afforded by the program more easily.
Incentive credits are now stored on a card with magnetic strip. Rather than having to use tokens specific to one vendor or company, participating customers can use their card at multiple vendors, and can use an online portal to check their incentive balance and find participating sites. Vendors benefit, too; rather than counting tokens, vendors can now process transactions via the card on a hard-wired device.
Beyond streamlining the purchase of healthy food, the technology has proved useful to food retailers enrolled in the program. In addition to deploying equipment and software to sites, Fair Food Network provided retailers with in-person and online trainings, and in some cases, technical assistance to vendors, market managers, and store owners to troubleshoot problems and ensure the system was operating smoothly and efficiently. They found that many smaller retailers benefitted from the technology in unexpected ways, as the tablet technology used to process payments helped them complete other store functions.
The electronic payment technology has a second key benefit: interoperability. Unlike the token model, SNAP users can now earn Double Up Food Bucks at one site and redeem them at a different location. By enabling benefits to be used at different types of retail locations, this technology has dramatically increased their fruit and vegetable purchasing power. As a result, Double Up is now reaching approximately 40% of SNAP households in Flint, up from 9% before the launch of the technology.
The enhanced convenience of the electronic loyalty card helps SNAP users more effectively manage their household budgets. “They’re able to do more planning with their family budget, especially with saving credits for important times like the holidays,” said Holly Parker, senior director of programs at Fair Food Network. “This technology isn’t a silver bullet, but given that technology can often be a way that low-income families are left behind, this is a case where technology is being used to improve access.”
Finally, this technology is closing critical feedback loops to help Fair Food Network further improve the Double Up Food Bucks program. By going electronic, Fair Food Network now has programmatic data for users and their network of vendors. This enables new reporting structures and more consistent and reliable data reporting—just another benefit for users and vendors accomplished by incorporating existing, relatively simple technology.
* Photo from Fair Food Network