Everyone should have access to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and now more than ever. Over the past 30 years, the federal government has worked to improve access to these important, healthy foods for people receiving food assistance. First, the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program, serving women, infants, and children, was replicated to include seniors in 2001. Since then, a robust set of efforts have emerged across the country to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients with more funds to use to purchase fresh produce, under various programs, such as Double-up Food Bucks, Fresh Bucks, and Market Match.
In the 2014 Farm Bill, Congress created federal support for these SNAP incentive programs through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI). From 2015-2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributed $73 million to local SNAP incentive projects. FINI, which was recently rechristened as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) in honor of the food access pioneer, has grown rapidly in funding and geographic scope, with the 2018 Farm Bill authorizing a total of $250 million for the 2019-2023 period.
The GusNIP program has been very successful in connecting low-income consumers with the economic well-being of local and regional farmers. This program deserves to be significantly expanded, as a model for transforming the SNAP program. However, the way it has been implemented is far from equitable, and is failing to address health inequities and food insecurity in some disadvantaged regions of the country. And it presents larger implications about the USDA’s overall approach to merit-based grants.
As nearly 40 percent of Americans are reporting some form of food insecurity, it’s time to revisit how we fund these programs—and who receives the funding.
Breaking Down the Problem
Of the $32 million USDA awarded directly to programs helping get more fresh produce to low-income folks in 2019, four organizations—one in Michigan and three in California—received a combined $23.6 million to expand programs that incentivize shoppers to purchase fresh produce at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. In other words, just two states received more than two-thirds the total funds, leaving just $9 million remaining to split among every other state and recipient.
The chart above shows how, between 2015 and 2019, Michigan received over $15 of GusNIP award dollars per SNAP participant, while California received over $6 per participant.
Meanwhile, the South, stretching from West Virginia to Oklahoma, received only about $1 per SNAP recipient, and Texas received just 16 cents! To put it even more starkly: Despite representing 36 percent of the U.S. populace, the 13 states of the South collectively received only 16 percent of the available funds.
Admittedly, large grants are easier for the USDA to administer. This likely matters more than ever now that the Trump administration has moved the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to Kansas City and some two thirds of the staff have quit. Large grants also have the potential to demonstrate a larger impact than multiple smaller grants do, and that’s an important consideration when proving the program’s impact to Congress—as it will no doubt have to do for the next farm bill.
But this kind of administrative and political reasoning might prove hard to explain to a single mom raising two children on poverty wages in Alabama, a state that has never received its own GusNIP grant. According to one source, an application in this most recent 2019 grant round from Alabama was denied, at least in part because much larger grants went to a few organizations. This efficiency comes at a steep cost: fewer dollars are flowing to places where they’re needed most.
Why isn’t federal funding more evenly distributed among regions of the country with the greatest need? Certainly, Detroit is as impoverished as any place in the country, but the need there doesn’t negate that of the Mississippi Delta, the colonias in Texas, West Virginia’s coal country, or Alabama’s Black Belt. As the region with the highest overall food insecurity and obesity rates, the South should be an important part of the GusNIP effort.
The USDA and the grant review panels will no doubt argue that funding decisions are based on merit, and that the most highly rated grant applications are funded first. Larger nonprofit organizations, especially those who know the USDA grant-making system as well as the large groups in Michigan and California do, have cultivated the expertise to continue winning large grants.
It’s a classic example of the old adage, “them that has, gets.” And in this case, competitive grants are simply replicating and deepening geographic inequities. These inequities are only amplified by a GusNIP requirement that federal funds must be matched dollar-for-dollar by state or philanthropic funds, meaning that states like California and Michigan, with more philanthropic resources and high-capacity grant writers, will bring home a lot more federal bacon than poorer states ever could.
We have both sat on USDA/NIFA grant review panels where we’ve been instructed or admonished to only consider the merit of the proposal in front of us, and to disregard any “outside information”—such as the comparative levels of need between states and regions.
The end result of this merit-versus-need struggle is writ large in the inequitable distribution of GusNIP funds, and it has real life-or-death consequences, especially for those struggling with diabetes and obesity.
A recent study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicates that over half of the residents of 29 states will be obese by 2030, and that one-quarter will have severe obesity.
While all states, including California (one of the three healthiest states in the country) and Michigan (19th on the Harvard list), have unacceptable levels of obesity, they pale in comparison to West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas, whose projected obesity rates of 60 percent each will tax health care systems to their outer limits and severely constrain the quality of life of its victims.
An Equitable Path Forward
The GusNIP program is a popular social and health intervention that has shown promising results in altering eating behaviors. And in light of the frightening increase in obesity, the U.S. must squeeze every last public and private dime for its highest and best health outcomes. While we desperately need to devote more funds to this crisis, we must also target existing dollars to the geographic areas and demographic groups that are most at risk.
First and foremost, GusNIP needs a cap on the maximum grant size, a rule that every other USDA program has already implemented, so that no state can receive more than 15 percent of available funds in any given year.
Additionally, the USDA should be directed to prioritize the distribution of funds based on need, perhaps in the form of regional set-asides. The training and technical assistance funds that the USDA offers to programs should also be set aside and targeted, again to areas of greatest need, to increase the capacity of grant writers and program operators nationwide.
Lastly, the USDA (and if necessary, Congress) must address the program’s dollar-for-dollar match requirement. While we recognize the political attractiveness of having federal funds matched by state and local dollars, the match requirement effectively undercuts projects led by grassroots groups and in states with limited philanthropic resources. The match has come to not only undermine the purpose of the program, but to also reinforce structural racism.
Programs like GusNIP have demonstrated their ability to provide more healthy food to more people while supporting local farmers, and they deserve substantial support. But now—more than ever—we need to make sure they are truly helping, and not reinforcing existing inequities across the communities with the greatest need.
This article was updated to correct a typo; Michigan and California recieved $23.6 million in funding, not $33.6 million.