Local Produce and Nutrition Incentive Programs

December 30, 2020

By Ted Mason & Jimmy Wright, NGAF TA Center

As buying agents for the grocery shoppers they serve, grocers never lose track of their obligation to provide shoppers with the products they want and need. Just as home gardeners know fruits and vegetables grown in their backyard are the freshest one can get, grocers also look for opportunities to provide customers with fresh locally grown fruits and vegetables.

As consumers continue wanting to know more about their food and where it comes from, grocers are increasingly committed to exploring new ideas and methods to expand their offering of locally produced fruits and vegetables. Additionally, many nutrition incentive programs have an emphasis on, or requirement for fresh local produce.

Nutrition incentive programs allow retailers to provide SNAP shoppers and those with certain diagnosed medical conditions free or discounted produce to achieve improved health outcomes. Retailers are then reimbursed for the value of the products provided to customers through USDA funding.  The National Grocers Association Foundation Technical Assistance Center (NGAF TA Center) works with retailers and grantees to incorporate local produce – where product availability, transportation, quality, price, and food safety requirements permit, into nutrition incentive programs.

Below we explain how some of the considerations  of local sourcing for grocers’ interplay with nutrition incentive programs.

Seasonality
Pending a grantee’s specific project objectives, such as improving health or  local farm income, seasonality can also affect the local produce requirements of a nutrition incentive program’s design and implementation. In today’s global produce marketplace, almost any fruit or vegetable is available and affordable year-round. However, depending on location, local produce may not be as available throughout the year. For some nutrition incentive programs, where priority is given to providing access to the program year-round, local sourcing requirements may be lower or only apply during the local growing season. Other nutrition programs may elect to offer programs based on local produce that is available only during the growing season with the incentive program ending as the growing season concludes.

Transportation
There is an existing system for local produce, particularly with independent operations, where farmers sell directly to the store, however this system is limited by how close the store is to those farmers. Requiring retailers to adhere to strict local produce requirements where transportation restricts the availability of local products may limit the success of the incentive program. Current local supply chains, ranging from a farmer dropping product off directly at the store to produce wholesalers, all have issues that must be overcome. Individual drop-offs are time consuming and can have additional challenges with maintaining product quality and safety during transportation. Produce wholesale operations struggle with profitability from the smaller volume of produce from local farmers. Grocers are in the business of selling groceries and generally leave the logistics of how products are delivered to supply chain transportation experts. Farm producers are in the business of growing food and not generally experts in getting their products to grocery stores. Grantees must be equally invested in solving the transportation and supply issue for local produce as they are in setting the requirement in the first place.

Product Quality and Price
We all know that shoppers want the shiniest apples with absolutely no bruising or cuts. Shoppers also seek produce in certain sizes along with other attributes conforming to expectations of what the perfect product should “look” like. Frequently the local produce that shows up at a grocery store does not conform to those consumer expectations and cannot compete with commercially available produce. In addition to image, local produce also frequently comes with a premium making it more expensive than other produce. While some consumers are learning the value of local and are willing to pay a higher “premium” price for local produce, there are limits. Shoppers using nutrition incentives may still be seeking to maximize the amount of food purchased with SNAP benefits and local produce having higher pricing may not be part of their shopping plan.

Food Safety
It is highly likely that you have thrown away or returned certain fruit and vegetable items due to a product recall for various microbial or other contamination reasons. Retailers, as the buying agent for consumers, must have assurance, to the extent possible through the supply chain, that all produce purchased is produced, harvested, and transported within strict food safety guidelines. Retailers are now seeking local produce that has been produced under the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program that provides reasonable assurance that the products are safe. These food safety guidelines require an audit to prove conformance which can be costly for local farmers leading many to skip the audit even though they are following the practices. Lack of audit may be a non-starter for some retailers, making sourcing local produce difficult.

The role local produce plays in nutrition incentive programs is important and the NGAF TA Center is actively working to find ways to encourage the growth of local produce available to nutrition incentive shoppers. That said, there must be reasonable understanding between grantees and retailers to find a balance between impeding the growth of nutrition incentives yet providing new opportunities for local producers to have their products available to all shoppers in their local grocery store.

To learn more about nutrition incentives and how to bring them to your store, please visit the NGAF TA Center website, www.ngaftacenter.org.

*The NGAF TA Center addresses the challenges grocers and supermarket operators face in establishing nutrition incentive programs and is a proud partner of the Nutrition Incentive Hub. The Nutrition Incentive Hub, funded through a cooperative agreement from the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, is a new resource that provides training, technical assistance, reporting, and evaluation for those working to launch or expand SNAP incentives or produce prescription programs. The Nutrition Incentive Hub is led by Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition in partnership with Fair Food Network along with a coalition of evaluators, researchers, practitioners, and grocery and farmers market experts from across the country dedicated to strengthening and uniting the best thinking in the field to increase access to affordable, healthy food to those who need it most.