Bronwyn Starr, Senior Program Officer, New York State Health Foundation
During the first year of the pandemic, despite being a rural agricultural region with over 4,000 small farms, the food insecurity rate across the North Country counties of New York rose from 11 to 15 percent. In March 2020, with funding from New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth), the Adirondack Foundation, and the Cloudsplitter Foundation, AdkAction partnered with the Hub on the Hill, a nonprofit food hub, to launch its Emergency Food Packages (EFP) project to assist local families facing food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. EFP succeeded in delivering thousands of healthy, locally produced food packages to people in need while also supporting hard working farmers across the region.
As grant funding for EFP was ending, AdkAction saw an opportunity to be responsive to the continued demand for food packages by transforming the project into a sustainable food security program The newly created Fair Food Pricing (FFP) program provides subsidized (up to 30 percent), healthy, local food for qualifying residents. These residents may also use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
To further support families, AdkAction adopted expanded income eligibility requirements to meet community need. While 11 percent of households in the North Country are eligible for benefits as defined by the Federal Poverty Guidelines, United Way’s Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) threshold indicates that an additional 28 percent of households are just one emergency away from landing in poverty. By using ALICE as the guideline for FFP eligibility, the program is assisting many residents who normally would not qualify or might inconsistently qualify due to seasonal employment for SNAP.
FFP is also distinct from other programs because customers can purchase locally produced whole food items (e.g., milk, eggs, and meat protein) rather than being limited to only fruits and vegetables. Participants can also shop online or in person, providing a way for homebound residents and rural households to have food delivered to their homes.
At the end of 2021, there were approximately 250 enrollees who purchased over $130,000 worth of local food. AdkAction projects another 250 participants will be enrolled by June 2022.
Although New York was one of the first states to pilot United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, access to the program is still limited, especially in rural counties where participating large grocers, such as Walmart and ShopRite, are not readily accessible to residents. Applying to become an online SNAP vendor is a cumbersome, expensive, and time consuming process that deters smaller food vendors from participating. Thus, regions like the North Country are often unable to take advantage of these opportunities.
To overcome this challenge, AdkAction provided technical support to Hub on the Hill to help them apply to become an online SNAP vendor. If successful, this would make them the first nonchain, small food vendor in New York state to offer online SNAP to its customers. This means that users could shop and pay for food online with their SNAP dollars.
This entire process has highlighted the need for changes in public policy to remove significant barriers. Thus, AdkAction has enlisted the New York State Council on Hunger and Food Policy and Hunger Free America to advocate at the state and federal levels to streamline the online SNAP approval process, which is still pending over one year after the application was submitted.
Expansion of USDA’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot also increases market opportunities for local farmers. As part of AdkAction’s effort, they are working with NYSHealth grantee Field & Fork Network to offer the Double Up Food Bucks nutrition incentive, stretching the purchasing power for healthy foods.
AdkAction is also working with a web-based information management firm to assess the feasibility of developing a unified card system to administer various incentive programs. This will make it easier and more efficient for customers and vendors to reduce redundancies and have a more streamlined and dignified experience that can work both online and in person.
Finally, AdkAction is producing a how-to guide, that will be available to the public, free of charge, to help vendors across New York state (as well as anywhere else in the country) apply for and participate in the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot program.
Having started as an immediate crisis response to feed people, AdkAction’s project has evolved into a groundbreaking and sustainable approach. It puts New York state on the path toward being the first state to expand the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot beyond large chain stores. The project’s success will be strengthened by the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which will provide $1.15 billion to states for SNAP programs, including support for technological improvements to expand online food purchasing.
These projects present a scalable, innovative vision for overcoming persistent challenges associated with food access, affordability, and equity. These successes mean that all food insecure residents of New York’s North Country will have tangible access points where they can easily purchase healthy and affordable food. The possibilities for larger scale success across the state and country are significant, and we hope other grantmakers will join us in making investments like these.