Tim Bryant started using food stamps after a parking garage gate hit his head, causing a traumatic brain injury that forced him to drop out of his master’s degree program. The week before, he had lost his job.
Six months later, he’s starting to heal, thanks in part to a program that doubles the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables he can buy with his Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The Double Up Food Bucks New York program helps him eat more nutritious foods like kale, avocado and salmon that promote brain health.
“Having this injury, eating healthy is such a big component of my recovery,” says Bryant, who lives in Syracuse, New York. “It was really important to me to be able to do that. The program stretched my dollar. I was able to make food choices that I probably would not have made.”
Cornell researchers are part of an $8.08 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through which they’ll assess and improve New York’s Double Up Food Bucks program, which is piloting the first Double Up online shopping option in the nation. The team will help the program expand to every county outside of New York City by 2027 and reach an estimated 200,000 SNAP recipients who do not currently have access to it.
“This funding is all about expanding the reach of the Double Up Food Bucks program to more families across New York state by using innovative strategies such as technology,” said Tashara Leak, associate professor in the College of Human Ecology (CHE), in the Division of Nutritional Sciences, and co-director of the Action Research Collaborative (ARC) with Neil Lewis Jr. ’13, associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS); both are also associate professors in the Division of General Internal Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
The ARC Evaluation Unit, part of CHE and CALS, will assess the barriers and opportunities to expand Double Up Food Bucks New York, a federal program administered in New York by Field & Fork Network, a Buffalo-based nonprofit that works to foster a sustainable food system. The program is available at more than 220 grocery stores and farmers markets in 32 of New York’s 62 counties.
For every dollar SNAP users spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, they get another dollar – through a coupon, a credit on their Double Ups loyalty card or a token at a farmers market – that they can spend on fruits and vegetables, up to $20 per day. The program also benefits local farmers who gain new customers, and keeps more food dollars circulating in the local economy.
Bryant likes to spend his Double Ups at farmers markets, to support local growers and to try foods he might not have encountered before, such as different varieties of squashes or peppers. “That experience of cooking something and creating a beautiful meal, something that’s healthy, something that’s new – having that is sort of dignified when you’re in a state where dealing with social services, a lot of that is not very dignified,” he said. “I’m really grateful for the program.”
The funding builds on a current grant, ending in September 2024, through which ARC is helping Field & Fork evaluate its Double Up program. In the new round of funding, ARC’s multidisciplinary team, including experts in communication, nutrition, psychology and public policy, will assess expansion efforts in three areas.
They’ll evaluate an automatic enrollment pilot where SNAP users will be automatically signed up for Double Ups and get coupons when they swipe their EBT cards at grocery stores. Currently, SNAP users have to know about the Double Up program, go to a place that participates and fill out a paper application. “As you can imagine, that creates a lot of barriers in an already complex checkout system,” Leak says.
ARC will also evaluate a first-of-its kind pilot project in Essex, New York, in the Adirondacks region, that enables SNAP users to shop online and get their groceries delivered to their homes. Field & Fork staff expect this innovation will increase Double Ups participation, especially for people without reliable transportation, with mobility issues and who live in areas without a grocery store.
That resonates with Bryant. He has to drive to the supermarket that takes Double Ups in his area, which he describes as a low-income, low-access food area. “I have a car where a lot of people do not,” he said. When he described the program to a neighbor, “… her response was, ‘I don’t know where I would use them. I would only be able to go when you go and can take me.’ That’s a big issue and a big barrier,” Bryant said
And ARC will assess a pilot project in Buffalo that enables Double Up users to buy-one-get-one-free boxes from CSAs – farms that sell consumers a subscription for a summer or winter season.
Field & Fork will use results from the pilot programs to scale up the expansion projects throughout the state.
“ARC allows us first and foremost to ask hard questions about ourselves as an organization and what works specifically within our program for our New York constituents,” said Joshua McGuire, Field & Fork’s program director for Double Up Food Bucks New York. “They’re great thought-partners. Their perspective has been really helpful, given that they are such professionals in the world of food systems and the socioeconomic factors that affect it. So that allows us this expert analysis that we wouldn’t normally have. That’s a huge tool and a resource for us.”
ARC is not only evaluating the expansion projects but also conceptualizing ideas and asking new questions – such as how to advance equity in Double Up participants. In New York state, about 17% of Black and Hispanic households experience food insecurity, compared with only 7% of non-Hispanic white households, according to a 2023 report by the New York Health Foundation.
“While we’re working with families who often have low wages or no wages, there are racial and ethnic disparities in this group,” Leak said. “We’re able to utilize data to determine, for example, if there aren’t enough counties that serve predominantly Black families. Then Field & Fork Network could identify grocery stores in those communities to participate in the Double Up program to further increase access and reduce disparities.”
ARC team members will evaluate the projects through surveys and interviews of Double Up users, grocery store owners and CSA farms, to think about Double Up users more broadly, Lewis said.
“What are all the factors that are going to affect their ability to use this program? There are communication issues. There are nutrition issues. One of the issues is interfacing with the technology. ARC’s researchers study different aspects of those barriers,” Lewis said. “We’re uniquely situated to study all those factors in a holistic way, which is necessary to figure out how to grow and scale this program so that it improves equity as it scales up and serves more and more people.”
The program has helped Bryant in multiple ways, he says, and has incentivized him to cook meals at home that are not only delicious but also have more variety than he would with SNAP benefits only.
“It does so much for me, physically, in terms of what I can consume,” Bryant said. “But it also does a lot for me in terms of my mental health and spiritual health and just being excited about the food that I eat, which is, I think, equally important.”
By Susan Kelley, Cornell Chronicle