SNAP program needs a good story to tell

06/21/2013 12:23:00 PM
Tom Karst

Tom KarstMichigan is on to something, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture should pay attention.

I recently made a call about a pilot program in Michigan that will allow Detroit consumers to “double up” on food stamp benefits to make bonus purchases of Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables in selected grocery stores. The program starting July 1, is funded by donations from about 40 foundations, and will be rolled out in three Detroit supermarkets.

The program will give customers who spend at least $10 on fruits and vegetables using a SNAP EBT card a Double Up Food Bucks card worth $10 toward their next purchase of Michigan-grown produce, according to the Fair Food Network.

The pilot is an extension of an existing “double bucks” program for about 100 Michigan farmers’ markets.

While a national program to double fruit and vegetable benefits at retail for SNAP participants would likely be preferred by the produce industry, the state’s approach to promote home-grown produce in supermarkets is enlightened.

The SNAP program needs reform, as it continues to be a lightning rod for conservatives who see the ever-bigger participation numbers of the program and want to contain the program’s drain on the budget.

Indeed, the contentious debate over farm bill cuts to SNAP benefits probably contributed to the farm bill’s demise. A whopping 80% of the farm bill is accounted for by food stamp expenditures, putting it squarely in cross hairs of budget hawks.

The USDA website has an interactive map that shows the participation rate for food stamps in many U.S. states.

The map shows that in Johnson County, Kan., where I reside, the total number of SNAP recipient has risen from about 4,000 in 2000 to 22,795 people in 2012.

That’s a big increase. As taxpayers, we have to wonder; when will the numbers start to go down?

While it can debated whether “targeting” food stamps makes political sense for Republicans, there is no doubt the SNAP program will see increased scrutiny.

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., floated an amendment that would require the Department of Agriculture to publish a detailed record online of all retail sales in the $80 billion a year food stamp program. The bill would mandate that the USDA publish SNAP (food stamp) sales in a searchable format that would allow the public to see what items were purchased, where they were purchased, and at what cost.

Other Republican representatives have put forward amendments that would compel participants to participate in a work activation program and eliminate the Agriculture Secretary’s authority to waive work requirements.

In badly need of a good story to tell, the SNAP program should create incentives for food stamp purchases of fresh produce.

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One of the more engaging videos I’ve seen created by a produce company was the “Life of an Asparagus.”

The video, which snagged 22,000 views after four days in its initial music-accompanied version, is shot from the “point of view” of the asparagus, taken on a fast-motion trip from farm through the packinghouse process.

I recently visited with Shay Myers, general manager of Owyhee Produce in Nyssa, Ore., about the video. He said the video illustrates the work and processes in involved in getting the product from the farm to the point it is ready to be put on a truck.

“For a lot of consumers I think the mentality is that food comes from the grocery store,” he said. Even when consumers think of a farming operation, they think of a red barn, a tractor and a few cows. They don’t envision the harvest crews, the logistics and the packing house.

The firm is also producing similar “point of view” videos for onions, which will cover the journey of the onion from farm to fork. The onion adventure will be presented in several short videos.

Filming began on those videos began in August and September by Blake Rosencrantz of BBR Photo Design and marketing manager for Owyhee Produce.

The final segment of the onion videos will show a chef picking up the onions at the grocery store and using the onions in a recipe. That onion video will be released late summer or early fall, he said.

I asked Myers about how he measured the he return on investment for this type of social media outreach. “Obviously we want to see video views and people come to our website,” he said.

Myers said the firm’s onions are sold across the U.S., so the internal debate on who should be the target audience isn’t easy.

“We have the challenge of “Who are we really marketing to?,’” he said. Is it the consumer or is it the wholesaler or retailer

Myers believes if the firm creates additional value for the consumer, that will create additional value for the retailer. “That’s our goal.”

Rosencrantz said the “life of” videos offer consumers education about the commodity.

As multimedia and social marketing efforts are escalating I would encourage all marketing managers in the produce industry to join The Packer’s Market. The site allows users to upload youtube videos and get reactions from the trade. That audience may be more important, in the end, than consumers who view the video on the web.



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