I vividly remember the anxiety of grocery shopping when my children were little. The costs of rent and daycare swallowed up most of our household budget at the time, so I would walk past the produce section quickly, avoiding the fresh mangos and leafy greens in favor of the cheaper fare in the center of the supermarket.

I wasn’t alone. Hawaii’s food costs are 82 percent higher than the rest of the U.S. (as measured by the cost of the USDA’s “Thrifty Food Plan”). So this might sound familiar to many readers who have — at some point in their lives — had to make hard choices at the checkout. In fact, it’s estimated that nearly one in 10 Hawaii residents does not have regular access to enough food for a healthy, active life. (This is how the USDA defines food insecurity.)

Due to the high costs of living, people are forced to make choices between what’s nutritious and what’s affordable, and this is true for a wide range of Hawaii residents, from young families juggling multiple jobs to kupuna living on a fixed income. When the choice is between putting healthy food on the table and paying medical bills or covering rent, it’s not truly a choice at all.

Mangoes are good for you but are not so cheap. Programs like SNAP can help families eat better.

Denby Fawcett

Unfortunately, this can lead to health problems and higher medical costs in the future, perpetuating the cycle of poverty for generations.

To address this issue, food retailers and farmers markets (in Hawaii and nationwide) have been participating in a growing trend: offering dollar-for-dollar incentives when shoppers purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables using their SNAP benefits (the program formerly known as “food stamps”).

Often called “Double Up Food Bucks” (“Double Up,” for short), these nutrition incentive programs are beneficial in a number of ways. Most fundamentally, they help stretch food budgets, which are often tightest at the end of the month, when benefits run low. Hunger is a major barrier to self-sufficiency, and SNAP benefits can be a stepping stone out of poverty for families who otherwise would not be able to pay for things like medicine or reliable transportation to work.

Doubling Up

In addition, incentives are just that — they incentivize healthy choices. Since benefits can only be used to purchase fresh, Hawaii-grown fruits and vegetables — items that might not even make the shopping list otherwise — fruit and vegetable consumption goes up, leading to better health outcomes (such as reduced rates of diabetes and heart disease).

This can be especially beneficial for children, allowing them the opportunity to try different foods while they are still forming their preferences. If they never have the chance to taste a fresh radish or homemade kabocha soup as children, they’re less likely to appreciate these flavors as adults.

One in four Hawaii children live in households that rely on federal benefits to meet their daily needs.

But perhaps most enticingly for state leaders, nutrition incentives are an impact investment. In fact, Double Up programs can have a substantial impact on the local economy — particularly the food retail and agriculture sectors. The USDA estimates that every dollar in SNAP benefits spent on local produce can generate $1.79 in economic activity. This means that if the state matched just $1 million of the $470 million in federal benefits that Hawaii SNAP users spend — and the entire $2 million went to local produce — that it would result in a more than $3.5 million multiplier effect for Hawaii farmers and food retailers.

Double Up programs have shown a great deal of promise already — so much so that the federal government has invested in a program called Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives. FINI has funded nutrition incentive programs around the country, including on Molokai and Hawaii Island. Privately funded programs have also been gaining popularity, as healthcare organizations begin to fully realize the importance of ensuring healthy food access for their patients. Kokua Kalihi Valley and Waianae Coast Comprehensive healthcare centers have also proven the model works locally.

But so far these programs have been grant-based, and not nearly enough to meet the needs of the more than 160,000 SNAP users in the islands. One in four Hawaii children live in households that rely on federal benefits to meet their daily needs, so a statewide Double Up program would have a huge impact, expanding access to Hawaii-grown fresh fruits and vegetables to children and families across the state.

This is exactly what is being proposed by Senate Bill 390 (and companion House Bill 262). This legislation would create a statewide Double Up program — the likes of which have already been passed in 12 other states (with promising results).

Double Up Food Bucks is one of those elegant solutions that are truly a win-win-win: for farmers, families, and the economy. No one should have to choose between putting food on the table and making sure they can pay their bills. With incentives, they don’t have to make that choice, and everyone benefits.

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About the Author

  • Daniela Kittinger
    Daniela Kittinger is the director of the Hawaii Hunger Action Network, an initiative that brings together food banks, service providers, and advocates to ensure all people in Hawaii have enough food to live healthy, dignified, productive lives. Previously, she led the Department of Health’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) initiative.