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Wholesome Wave Receives $500,000 Grant from USDA to Increase Healthy Food Access in Connecticut and Vermont

Pictured with a stack of SNAP Up! coupons, Jeffrey Perez’s family owns the C-Town on Wethersfield Ave in the South End of Hartford.

Wednesday, June 8 — Today, in the announcement of the second round of funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Program, USDA awarded national nonprofit Wholesome Wave approximately $500,000 to increase affordable access to healthy food in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont through an innovative Farm-to-Grocery Nutrition Incentive model, which funds coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables that match the value of SNAP spent at participating grocery stores and increases locally-grown food those stores procure from nearby farmers.

Combined with an additional $500,000 from other funding sources, this project will amount to a $1 million investment in Connecticut and Vermont’s local food economies. Wholesome Wave will work with two community nonprofits, Hartford Food System and Green Mountain Farm to School, and eight local grocery stores, to help an estimated 5,000 people purchase more fresh produce. Participating stores will purchase approximately $122,0000 worth of regional produce from nearby CT and VT farmers. The project is expected to trigger $920,000 in SNAP and incentive purchases in just its first 3 years.  Overall, this work will increase food access for low-income residents, support grocery stores as healthy food providers, strengthen local economies, and drive revenue to nearby farms.

“Wholesome Wave is thrilled by the innovations that USDA is supporting through the new FINI grants, which are taking the work of increasing affordable access to healthy food to even greater levels of impact,” said Michel Nischan, CEO & Founder of Wholesome Wave. “So many SNAP shoppers are working parents with limited time to source healthier food choices. Through the new Farm-to-Grocery model, our partners in VT and CT will be able to expand affordable access to SNAP consumers in a way that allows them to find and purchase more healthy food from a variety of retailers.”

Hartford, CT and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom both face high levels of poverty and are home to farmers seeking new markets for their healthful crops. Currently, 40% of Hartford’s children live in poverty and 42% of the city’s residents use SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Vermont’s rural Orleans and Essex Counties face similar challenges, with the highest poverty, unemployment, and food insecurity rates in the state. In the first iterations of healthy food incentives – which also match the value of SNAP spent – Wholesome Wave worked with local partners to offer them at farmers markets. By expanding healthy food incentives to grocery stores where many families already shop, this project will offer a promising solution to each community’s food access challenges. Wholesome Wave’s expertise in facilitating and scaling successful food access projects, combined with the local nonprofits’ experience within the communities, represents an ideal partnership to move this work forward. This project builds off Wholesome Wave’s existing work across 40 states and counting, including expansion through the large-scale FINI grant we received last year.

In particular, this year’s FINI grant expands on the successes of Wholesome Wave’s and partners’ efforts to pilot nutrition incentives in grocery stores in Connecticut and Vermont. In the first few months of 2016, Wholesome Wave invested in the Hartford, CT food system by providing SNAP consumers with $23,000 in nutrition incentives to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables at two locally-owned grocery stores. During the program period, attributable at least in part to this project, SNAP sales at the local C-Town supermarket increased 7% and produce sales increased by 19% over the same period in 2015.

Executive Director of Hartford Food System, Martha Page, said: “As demonstrated in the pilot program, the SNAP Up! nutrition incentives are an excellent way to get more fresh fruits and vegetables on Hartford dinner tables. The enthusiastic response to the incentives by Hartford SNAP participants clearly shows that there is a demand for affordable, high quality produce.  For our local farmers, this will represent a new customer base that they have not been able to easily access. We are so excited at the opportunity to bring Hartford area farmers and Hartford consumers together; we believe that we will prove that good food is good business!”

In its pilot year, the VT-based program demonstrated similar success. Almost $30,000 worth of produce vouchers were redeemed, with an astounding 93% redemption rate. A majority of participants said that the program allowed them to buy vegetables they otherwise could not afford. One participant noted: “I think it’s a wonderful program and it helps introduce people to fruits and vegetables that they normally wouldn’t buy because they don’t have enough money.” Katherine Sims, Executive Director of Green Mountain Farm-to-School, is enthused about the impact this additional grant will have: “The need and the want for fresh fruit and vegetables is clearly there in our communities. In the Northeast Kingdom, over a quarter of children are considered food insecure and don’t know where their next healthy meal will come from and through the grant we are glad that we’re able to help meet some of that demand. It’s also an opportunity to have those local stores source from area farmers and encourage participants in the program to purchase the local, healthy food that will help spur further economic growth in the region.”

National leaders emphasize how this new model will benefit their state’s economies, while increasing access to produce for low-income residents and improving the bottom line for regional farmers. “Increasing access to fresh, healthy food for the low-income residents of food deserts will help move our communities one step closer to ending food insecurity. The federal funding awarded to Bridgeport’s Wholesome Wave to help provide fresh produce to Hartford’s local grocers is an investment in an incredible partnership that will help ensure the well-being and health of Hartford’s residents,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut offered similar support and enthusiasm: “Just a few days ago, I was at Hartford Regional Market talking to local farmers and Hartford community leaders about better connecting local food to city grocery stores. This grant for Wholesome Wave is a great opportunity to make that happen. It just makes sense—we should help families afford locally-grown, fresh food at the grocery stores they already shop at. We worked so hard to get North Hartford its Promise Zone designation so that the city can hop to the front of the line when it comes to getting federal grants. Today shows why that’s so important.”

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“With this grant, we will be able to help more families eat nutritiously in Hartford,” said Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes.

Connecticut’s representatives in the House have been supportive of the efforts to improve healthy food access in Hartford. “Too many in Hartford’s North End lack the most fundamental of human needs: fresh, healthy food. The energy needed to perform well in school or work comes from the food we eat, and no one in our country should ever be forced to go hungry. I applaud the USDA and Wholesome Wave of Bridgeport for recognizing the needs of Hartford. It is time to ensure affordable access to fresh, local produce in the North End,” said Rep. John Larson (CT-1). “Food deserts correlate very highly with areas of poverty across our country, and a lack of healthy and affordable food options can have a very detrimental effect, especially on children,” said Rep. Jim Himes (CT-4). “With this grant, we will be able to help more families eat nutritiously in Hartford and also support the excellent work that Wholesome Wave is doing right here in Bridgeport, creating innovative ways to bring healthy, local produce into more stores and kitchens.”

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Senator Leahy of Vermont said: “Pairing SNAP with incentives to use local Vermont fruits and vegetables makes sense, and it’s a winning scenario for everyone.”

In addition, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the father of the Farm to School efforts in Child Nutrition Bills, supported Green Mountain Farm to School and Wholesome Wave’s FINI grant proposal with a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack in December. “Last year I supported Green Mountain Farm to School and its partnership with Wholesome Wave as they piloted a new way to support families helped by SNAP to stretch their food budgets, while boosting the economic viability of our local producers.  Pairing SNAP with incentives to use local Vermont fruits and vegetables makes sense, and it’s a winning scenario for everyone. I am proud that Green Mountain Farm to School in its partnership with Wholesome Wave again has been selected to continue its extraordinary work of connecting our children, farms and communities throughout Vermont and New England.”  

Through this project, neighborhood grocery stores will become access points for fresh local produce, and experience increased revenues. Beyond direct impact to the community, Wholesome Wave will use this project to develop a replicable Farm-to-Grocery Nutrition Incentive model that we can spread nationally through our national network of over 110 organizations, promising impact on a national scale. Programs in Hartford and Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom are set to launch in August.

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