Pay it Forward - a sustainable model for nutrition incentives that nourishes, regenerates, and democratizes local food systems and economies
Future savings from a healthier population fund a nutrition incentive public option, pooling premiums into a democratized food system fund.
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Fair Food Network
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Small NGO (under 50 employees)
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Michigan's Lower Peninsula
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Starting a decade ago, our signature program, Double Up Food Bucks (DU), has grown from a small pilot in Detroit to a statewide effort in Michigan (MI) to a national model informing policy change. Since 2009, DU has grown to nearly 250 farmers markets and grocery stores in 64 MI counties, reaching 13% of 640,000 SNAP households and supporting 600+ farmers. In 2018, combined sales of SNAP and DU were nearly $6.8 million at participating DU sites. By 2023, the project will more than double participation in MI from 13% to 30% of SNAP households. The MI program has been a proving ground for innovation: MI was one of the first in the nation to bring incentives to grocery stores. MI is also on the forefront of technology innovations including online and mobile processing of incentives.
Additionally, we have experience bringing this program to life in urban communities, such as Flint, Detroit, and Grand Rapids. In 2016 we expanded in Flint to reach more residents with the healthy foods needed to limit lead absorption from the city’s water crisis. Since then, DU is reaching more than half of Flint’s SNAP households, up from 9%. Further, first-of-its-kind technology is allowing users in Flint to carry incentive dollars on a loyalty card.
Over 10 years of experience implementing DU has created strong partnerships across the state, including state departments, retailer associations, universities, grocers, farmers’ markets, farmers, faith-based coalitions, health centers, and SNAP households.
DU implementation in our home state of MI informs both public policy and healthy food incentive practitioners nationally. Since starting DU in MI, we have used our tools, resources and lessons learned here to bring high-touch technical assistance and training to partner organizations across the country. This support helped launch and improve DU in over 800 sites across more than two dozen states.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Referred to as the “Mitten”, MI’s lower peninsula (LP) is the southern of the two major landmasses that make up MI. Mostly flat and surrounded by 3 of the 5 Great Lakes, MI ranks as the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation. There are more than 50,000 farms producing more than 300 agricultural products, contributing more than $101B to the local economy and employing 932,000 people, or 22% of the State’s workforce. MI ranks among the top 3 producers of asparagus, tart cherries, cucumbers, dry beans, chestnuts, winter squash, summer squash, pumpkins, turnips, celery, apples, blueberries, rye.
Michigan is an Algonquian Indian word that means “big lake” and refers to Lake Michigan. The original inhabitants of the area include the Fox, Sauk, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Huron, and Ottawa tribes. Today, there are 11 federally recognized tribes--6 of those on the LP.
In addition to 0.5% Native Americans, the LP’s demographics include roughly 79% Whites, 14% African Americans, 5% Hispanics, and 3% Asians. The urban-rural divide is consistent with national trends with large conservative, mostly-white communities in rural areas and large liberal, more-diverse communities in urban areas. In 2012 and 2016 elections, rural counties leaned 10.5 points toward the Republican party, whereas urban counties leaned 4.5 points toward the Democratic party. About 75% of the LP’s population lives in urban areas (9% of total geography), while 25% lives in rural areas (91% of total geography). Urban areas are also home to a population significantly younger than their rural counterparts by an average of 5.8 years.
After suffering a narrow and unexpected loss in 2016, MI Democrats are forming powerful coalitions across ethnic and racial minorities which will prove pivotal in future elections. The LP is made up of a rich tapestry of immigrant neighborhoods, including Southwest Detroit, which boasts a 57% Latinx population and Latin American restaurants, smells, and fruitas stands at every corner; Dearborn and the larger Detroit Metropolitan Area, which boasts the largest concentration of Arab Americans (403,000), including those from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon, and the best hoummus, tabouli, and falafel there is; and Hamtramck, which boasts the most diverse city in MI and the first in the Country to be run by a Muslim-majority city council.
Home to the largest urban concentration of African Americans in the nation (83%), Detroit abounds with culture, character, and grit. After decades of decline, the city is experiencing a double-edged revitalization that openly and actively struggles with the tension between inclusive development and gentrification. While jobs and investment return to the Motor City, activists work to ensure that the residents who fought to keep the city alive are able to stay in their homes, find meaningful employment, access entrepreneurial opportunities, and benefit from the City’s resurgence.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
MI has one of the highest obesity rates in the nation: 31% of adults and 17% of youth. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, and 10% of adults have been diagnosed with diabetes. 11.9% meet the daily fruit intake recommendation, and 7.7% meet the daily vegetable intake recommendation.
The tragic toll diet-related disease takes on MI households is compounded by its resulting economic burden, especially on hardworking families in marginalized and lower-income communities. Even insured families face dire circumstances when extended disabilities and illness create gaps in critical income. This leads to a vicious cycle of chronic disease and poverty that makes it increasingly challenging to afford fresh produce and healthy diets, let alone break the cycle.
This economic toll extends beyond individual families. Healthcare expenditures in MI near $79B per year, $20B of which are government expenditures. With over 35% of its annual budget spent on healthcare, the State has fewer resources for critical programs that stabilize household incomes, improve education, and create opportunities for advancement.
Meanwhile, climate change adds fuel to the flame of farm consolidation, declining farmland, and aging farmers. Larger commodity farms grow increasingly dominant as midsize farmers lack access to the critical capital needed to update and modernize their farms. Property heirs are packing up their bags for more prosperous pastures and leaving behind the agricultural legacy that makes MI so proud and resilient. New and beginning farmers are disappearing, and 75% of agricultural sales come from 5% of operations. While a regional food system that is self-sustaining, carbon neutral, and able to supply produce year-round is possible, the financial risks and ever-changing technologies force the market to import products from global players who have infinite capital, yet no incentive to think sustainably.
Consequently, our atmospheric carbon levels have surpassed 400ppm. Our food system is addicted to fossil fuels, fertilizers and pesticides, and plastics. Extreme and unpredictable weather patterns make it harder to produce reliable food supplies. Our soil and water systems are actively polluted and depleted, reducing the viability of many of our growing regions.
This global food system does not support culturally relevant foods nor recognize the spiritual and health impacts of minimally processed and locally made foods. As consumers grow increasingly disconnected from the food system that nourishes them, the divide between urban and rural communities grow. We see our futures as separate and at odds rather than intertwined and co-dependent. We view one another with suspicion rather than empathy.
This cultural divide exacerbates a deepening political divide, making it harder to pass critical policies that improve lives and improve health. Our public policy is reactive, waiting for disaster as we watch our health, environment, and infrastructure crumble.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Imagine a world in which individual, retailer, and institutional demand for nutritious, sustainable foods ignites a virtuous cycle of reinforcing supply-demand trends and nourishes a more resilient, robust regional food system.
Recognizing the profound benefits of declining healthcare costs, diminishing absenteeism, shrinking greenhouse gas emissions, and thriving local economies; government, health insurers, and corporate citizens form a public-private partnership to incentivize the consumption and production of nutritious, sustainable foods.
The incentive takes the form of a heavily subsidized nutrition incentive public option in which families pay a fruit-and-vegetable premium to enroll into a program that offers a 50% discount on fresh produce at participating retailers. Premiums are opt-in, sliding-scale, tax-free, and eligible for automatic payroll and tax-return deductions. SNAP recipients are enrolled at no cost.
Qualifying retailers adopt an evolving set of requirements that include procuring 50% of fresh produce, legumes, dairy, and meat locally and sustainably by 2050; livable wages for all employees; no plastic bags; compost programming; sustainable energy inputs; and other standards democratically defined by and voted on by member stakeholders. Member stakeholders include enrolled families and elected regional food councils that unite urban, suburban, and rural stakeholders in collective visioning and decision-making.
The premiums are pooled into a $100M/year (~1M households * ~$100/household) granting entity that provides critical capital and grants to farmers and entrepreneurs working to improve the local food system, with a preference given to initiatives led by small and midsize farms, people of color, and individuals from distraught rural communities. Funds can be used to launch new enterprises or support technological improvements and upgrades that lead to more resilient and sustainable growing practices, including seasonal extension infrastructure, hydroponic and greenhouse growing, farm-to-freezer operations, food hubs, composting services, food waste reduction efforts, energy-efficient lighting and machinery, and last-mile delivery services for those without access to transportation. Funds are prioritized and voted on by member stakeholders.
The premium pool is also used to fund Eat Local marketing campaigns that raise awareness for the program and educate consumers and institutions on the value of supporting and consuming nutritious, sustainable agriculture. This campaign ensures that the benefits extend beyond retail and into anchor institutions with advocacy efforts to recruit schools, universities, and hospitals to commit to the same retailer standards mentioned above. As the program grows and the benefits are measured, a tax benefit in line with the quantified positive externalities will be used to further incentivize institutional participation.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
All families have reliable, affordable, and convenient access to fresh produce that are safely, sustainably, and locally grown. Obesity and diabetes trends are not only reversed, but halved. More than 50% of residents meet the daily fruit and vegetable intake recommendations. Farmers markets, corner stores, grocery stores, and institutions abound with fresh, nutritious, sustainable foods.
Critical capital grants and explosive growth of demand empower farmers, retailers, and entrepreneurs-especially those of color and from marginalized communities-to increase investment in research, development, and implementation of the technologies needed to foster a resilient and sustainable food system.
The food system regains a healthy balance where large, medium, and small entities thrive. People are dignified throughout the food chain, from the producer to the eater. There is a stronger connection between producer and consumer because food isn’t traveling as far. Urban regions play a larger part in producing the food they consume, and cooperation outweighs competition between urban, suburban, and rural stakeholders.
Local producers use sustainable growing practices that minimize the use of fossil fuels, nourish our water and soil systems, and model carbon neutrality. New growing practices and technologies proliferate, allowing the production of diverse specialty crops year-round. Grocery stores and institutions are incentivized to reduce food waste with creative waste management practices, and numerous enterprises have surfaced to meet the growing demand for waste and packing reduction.
The State spends less than 25% of its budget on healthcare. Farm revenue of MI's fruit and vegetable producers (including dried beans) quadruple to $4B. A coalition of local specialty crop producers, dairy farmers, and ranchers; independent and national retailers; health policy and food system advocates; and hunger agencies unite under a single urban-rural cause with shared vision and purpose.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
In addition to the vision described above, there are several key elements that warrant further exploration.
Core to this vision is democratized decision making, achieved through the combined efforts of the regional food council and enrolled members. The regional food council is comprised of a combination of representatives from each county and appointed experts. Council members are democratically elected through a checkbox on the ballot during the presidential election cycle. There are no party affiliations. The regional food council is responsible for selecting, curating, and presenting options to be voted on by enrolled members. These options include projects submitted for critical capital grants, new or updated retailer standards, and new or updated lists of “nutritious, sustainable foods” that are eligible for the 50% discount.
This voting mechanism not only encourages urban, suburban, and rural stakeholders to work together, but also ultimately fosters the ownership and agency of the enrolled members who opt in to the program, growing participatory decision making from the roots up. This shifts the power structure and empowers all enrolled eaters to take charge of our local food system. Digital polling, as well as traditional ballot box voting, will be utilized. Decision-making in this way also allows for programmatic updates to accommodate the wildly unpredictable future, inviting the eaters of both today and tomorrow to incorporate expanding ethics and tastes.
The flexibility outlined above provides a key mechanism for evolving the program to keep in step with eating patterns. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the easiest and most obvious targets for incentives today, yet as supply and demand for more convenient nutrition grow, there is a need for flexibility to accommodate new items that meet people’s changing lifestyles and are nutritious and sustainable. Supporting the availability of healthy, prepared foods, and holding these companies to the high standards set by our councils and enrolled members, means a sustainable impact on the way we eat tomorrow and today.
Sustainability and scalability is another vital element of this vision. This investment in preventative care will yield large benefits not only for the public, but also for policy makers, health insurers, and corporate citizens, who will find their priorities and bottom lines bolstered.
Buy-in from the public, the government, and the health sector along with the measured impact created will make this vision attractive to other states. Similar to existing nutrition incentive programs serving SNAP families under the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP), Michigan will serve as a proving ground for the nation at large. The federal government will be motivated to incentivize states to follow suit by offering a 1:1 match to the states implementing the Pay it Forward vision. As funding and interest grows, the program will expand and impact communities, our national food system, and planet.
Politically, it is important to recognize that food system actors benefiting from the status quo may put up a fight. It is our job to not only build an unbeatable coalition of advocates, but also help entrenched industry players see themselves as part of the solutions. How can they can nourish and regenerate local food systems and not destroy them? How can they empower local farmers with the tools and technologies to thrive? How can they leverage their access to capital and global markets to share and advance best practices? It won’t be an easy road, but with an intersectional coalition of powerful visionaries who won’t stop until their communities and ecosystems are healthy and resilient, it will be in the best interest of entrenched status quo players to work with the current rather than against it.
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