A faded sign in East Boston’s Maverick Square welcomes shoppers to Carniceria & Legumbreria 1A — photos of meat and vegetables alert onlookers to the shop’s wares. Here, in this single-lane grocery store, a program crafted in Washington, D.C., unfolds.
Customers stroll to the chilled shelves of produce lit up beyond the butcher counter. At the register, spending on healthy produce is matched dollar-for-dollar, and just like that, one tomato becomes two.
This is made possible by a program you’ve probably never heard of: GusNIP, or the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program.
Buried within the 530 pages of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 — more commonly referred to as the Farm Bill — GusNIP evidences the power of agriculture policy to improve the nation’s social well-being through strengthened public health and local economies. But as the Farm Bill is up for debate this year, so is the future of the program. Congress and the public need to understand the Farm Bill is a tool for social change, and that begins with scaling up GusNIP from its pilot phase to a full-fledged national program.
Every five years, Congress debates and passes a package of legislation that directs the nation’s food system — from what food is grown and how it’s grown, to who’s growing it and accessing it. The $428 billion in federal spending housed within the Farm Bill is mostly used to fund the mandatory Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), crop insurance programs, and subsidies for commodity crops like corn and soy. Though there are marginal shifts in funding for crop insurance and subsidy programs every five years, they remain the backbone of the country’s long-standing practice of using taxpayer dollars to support the industrial agriculture system.
GusNIP breaks this norm by prioritizing fresh food over commodity crops. Named for the former Massachusetts commissioner of food and agriculture (who went on to become undersecretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration), it funds projects that are aimed at increasing fruit and vegetable purchases among SNAP participants.
Double Up Food Bucks is one such project. Double Up provides a 50 percent discount on fruits and vegetables to SNAP recipients at participating locations, like Carniceria & Legumbreria 1A. But participating in Double Up requires advancing through multiple rounds of competitive funding applications. Boston has only six markets where shoppers can reap these benefits, and 20 states have zero participating locations.
Despite small existing reach, these projects have demonstrated enormous impact since the initial pilot began in 2009.
GusNIP’s year two impact report found that participants consumed 9 percent more vegetables and 13 percent more fruits than the average American — improving health and providing a pathway to decreasing health care costs.
This is how an uncommon alliance formed last year between Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Senator Mike Braun of Indiana in support of scaling up the program. Food insecurity, after all, knows no partisan or state bounds.
At a December Senate committee hearing, Booker and Braun teamed up in support of GusNIP to display how food can act as medicine, mitigating national medical costs that require expensive government subsidies of their own. As Braun argued then, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The Senate hasn’t yet proposed a cost for the scaled-up program, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates the price tag at $3 billion — about 10 times the current allotted funding. This price tag could help expand access to more than half of the nation’s 22 million SNAP participants.
Not all senators believe shifting the Farm Bill’s focus away from industrial agriculture at this scale is worth doing. At a Senate hearing in March with US Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi argued against providing preferential assistance to smaller farmers growing fruits and vegetables over large-scale commodity crop operations, dismissing them as “organic farmers and hobby farmers.”
But by thinking more expansively about the Farm Bill, it’s clear Congress has the chance to both feed and heal the nation, while jumpstarting local economies. The program has generated over $41 million in economic stimulus for local communities by increasing sales and supporting local farmers — a clear demonstration of impact that’s greater than funding so-called hobbies.
The window to reshape the Farm Bill is finally here and quickly closing. Congress should snap out of the status quo and put real food on the table.