SNAP Update:  “Twinkies can no longer be considered bread”

      “I’m disappointed that the rules don’t go as far as what was proposed early this year,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a nutrition advocacy group. “USDA has missed an opportunity to increase the availability of and access to healthier foods for low-income Americans.”

The earlier proposals also recommended leaving food with multiple ingredients like frozen pizza or canned soup off the staple list. The outcome is a win for the makers of such products, like General Mills Inc. and Campbell Soup Co., which feared they would lose shelf space as retailers added new items to meet the requirements.

But retailers still criticized the new guidelines as too restrictive. Stores must now stock seven varieties of staples in each food category: meat, bread, dairy, and fruits and vegetables….

…More changes to the food-stamp program may lie ahead. The new rules were published a day after the House Committee on Agriculture released a report* calling for major changes to the program, which Republicans on the committee say discourages recipients from finding better-paid work.

Source: Regulators Tweak SNAP Rules for Grocers – WSJ

*Some of the findings from the 2016 Committee on Agriculture Report “Past, Present, and Future of SNAP” are below.

    • Program participation nearly doubled (up 81 percent from FY 2007 to FY 2013) as a result of the recent recession. In an average month in FY 2007, 26.3 million people (or about 9 percent of the U.S. population) were enrolled in SNAP. That increased to 47.6 million people (or about 15 percent of the U.S. population) in FY 2013, owing to the fact that the economy was slow to recover and many families remained reliant on SNAP. Even now, with a 4.6 percent unemployment rate (compared to a 9.6 percent unemployment rate for 2010), there were still 43.4 million SNAP participants as of July 2016.
    • SNAP is now a catchall for individuals and families who receive no or lower benefits from other welfare programs, largely because the eligibility criteria in SNAP are relatively more relaxed. As a result, the net effect has been to increase SNAP enrollment. For example, in the welfare reforms of 1996, the cash welfare program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was converted into a block grant known as TANF, which has rather rigorous work and activity requirements and includes a time limit. Another program available to those who are laid off from work is Unemployment Insurance (UI). These benefits require individuals to have a work history and to be fired through no fault of their own to be eligible for assistance. UI benefits are also time-limited, typically lasting six months. A third program, Federal disability benefits, requires individuals to prove they are unable to work. For many families who have not collected SNAP in the past, SNAP is now a default option for filling in the gaps.
    • USDA data shows that spending on SNAP remains three times what it was prior to the recession ($23.09 billion pre-recession average compared to $73.99 billion post-recession in FY 2015). However, SNAP spending is now projected to be significantly lower than it was estimated at passage of the 2014 Farm Bill.
    • For FY 2017, the maximum monthly benefit in the 48 contiguous states and DC is $194 for a one-person household, $357 for a two-person household, and $649 for a four-person household.17 In determining a household’s benefit, the net monthly income of the household is multiplied by 30 percent (because SNAP households are expected to spend 30 percent of their income on food), and the result is subtracted from the maximum benefit to determine the household’s benefit.
    • Seniors have the lowest rates of SNAP participation among eligible households of any demographic. While the low participation rate has a variety of causes, a prominent explanation is the stigma associated with SNAP and welfare in general. Many factors contribute to a lack of access to food among seniors, including a lack of a substantial income, the gap between Medicaid and the cost of living, limited income with specialized diets, and mental and physical illnesses.  The issues facing these populations must be viewed holistically, with SNAP as one piece of a larger solution to solving hunger for seniors.


According to research by the AARP Foundation—a charitable affiliate of AARP—over 17 percent of adults over the age of 40 are food-insecure. Among age cohorts over age 50, food insecurity was worse for the 50-59 age group, with over 10 percent experiencing either low or very low food security. Among the 60-69 age cohort, over 9 percent experienced similar levels of food insecurity, and over 6 percent among the 70+ population.

• The operation of the program is at the discretion of each state. For instance, in California, SNAP is a county-run program. In Texas, SNAP is administered by the state… Dr. Angela Rachidi of the American Enterprise Institute cited a specific example in New York City where SNAP, WIC, school food programs, and child and adult care programs are all administered by different agencies and the result is that each agency must determine eligibility and administer benefits separately.

K. Michael Conaway, Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture. Hearing of the House of Representatives, Committee on Agriculture. Past, Present, and Future of SNAP. February 25, 2015. Washington, D.C.  Find report here

From CNN this week:

The number of people seeking emergency food assistance increased by an average of 2% in 2016, the United States Conference of Mayors said in its annual report Wednesday.

The majority, or 63%, of those seeking assistance were families, down from 67% a year ago, the survey found. However, the proportion of people who were employed and in need of food assistance rose sharply — increasing to 51% from 42%.

 

CNN Money report

 

Designing Better Shopping Experiences

Using a variety  of research methods, students with disabilities and conventional students at San Francisco State University studied “how the principles of Inclusive Universal Design practice can promote equity with respect to access and use of the physical environment.” Their findings can certainly assist market organizers and their methods should influence how we gather data.

The Symposium & Workshop sought to orient and prepare students with disabilities to educational and professional career opportunities in the design disciplines. There were three primary goals and collaborative interfaces.

(1) To introduce inclusive human-centered design applications in the design curriculum at SFSU that will orientate students, both the students with disabilities and conventional university design students to the holistic benefits of design education and practice that go beyond the exclusive and limited convention of mainstream design applications.

(2) Exposing students to inclusive participatory design empathy methodology.

(3) Identifying and creating design concepts for the product environment and interior space that facilitates one’s ability to access and manipulate the active learning and recreational environment at home, or at school.

This approach to data collection and design is available to busy and to “under-resourced” food organizers through resources and trainings available for purchase, and in online and in-person individual and group trainings.  The two companies that I usually send people to are Luma Institute for their wonderful resources on how to use this process (I also took their in-person course, thanks to FMC and the Knight Foundation) and Ideo, which has influenced some food system funders, like Ford Foundation. Both offer online individual and group courses.

I would suggest that this sort of professional development is exactly what can be included in grants or even sponsored by neighboring businesses of a market to undertake as a team. This approach is similar to the methods that are either included (or will be) in the Farmers Market Metrics program,  in tools such as the Marketshare section of Market Umbrella’s site and in the Farmers Market Toolkit instruments on the British Columbia Farmers Market site.

The final newsletter  includes  findings from these two projects:

Students Design Shopping Cart for Elderly Community

Supermarket carts are solid enough to lean on, but collapsible “granny carts” often used at urban farmer’s markets do not provide appropriate support for people with mobility issues, Fisher explained. “The idea of a cart is not exotic, but (it’s) important to my life,” Fisher said.

After conducting multiple interviews in the aging community, Lopez and Renard realized the need for a supportive personal cart is widespread. Renard said existing carts are generally constructed with weak materials with little attention to aesthetic.

“People put a little bit of thought and design into (portable carts), but they just paint (them) that nasty old-person beige,” Renard said. “Just because people are aging, they don’t want ugly products. They want something that fits their needs but is also stylish – (a product) they aren’t embarrassed to use.”

They credit their inspiration to Dr. June Fisher, an 82-year-old occupational health physician and Bay Area product design lecturer who worked closely with the duo throughout production.

She said she looks forward to having a CityCart of her own, something supportive enough to navigate a farmers market and pick up a few heirloom veggies without relying on someone else.

“The design came from a particular person’s need – my need,” Fisher said.

Designing a Better Shopping Experience with a Holistic Approach to Aging in Place

Several methods were employed such as group and individual in-depth interviews, immersive observations, shadowing and experience mapping session. By means of these methods it was conceived that elderly face several physical challenges while shopping.

These challenges are mostly due to their physical decline, are mainly coherent with the existing literature most of which have not been responded for many years. The main areas of concern were the large size of food packages, standing in long checkout lines, reading the labels, using the carts and baskets, size and layout of stores, shelves and location of products.

The study showed a very social aspect to shopping experience. Participants found shopping to be an experience than can be fun and social. The nostalgia from old ages and existing cultures around the world were two main sources of comparison for the elders. Elders showed to be very perceptive of personal social interactions of them as customers with the seller or store staff. They desired to personally know the staff and be known by them. They liked the staff to remember them and their preferences. They looked for a personal relationship with the staff; one that helps building trust in both parties. They also liked to make conversations and take advice from them on which food to buy or how to cook a special dish with the food and more. Talking of advice was always hand in hand with ‘trust’.

Findings showed that the seniors associated the personal familiarity with the seller and making regular conversations with him to sense of trust towards the seller. The general view of shopping environment was an environment for shopping, having fun and social interactions. They were specifically enthusiastic about communicating with the younger generation and truly appreciated the young people’s patience when they needed more time to learn.

The participants liked to be specially treated, not in a manner  that suggests they are not capable of doing it themselves or that they are old, but a special care based on friendly relationships,

One of the prominent findings of the research was elders’ discomfort when standing in long lines. Some had to physically strain while standing, finding leaning on the carts to be the only option to alleviate the hardship. Also, over the course of study a few times people brought up the idea of a resting area where they could sit for a while and take a breath. The combination of these findings led the researcher to design a service to address the mentioned issues. The service is called, “Valet Checkout”.

These methods can reduce the learning curve for markets and increase the likelihood of success in the final design.

 

Big Data and Little Farmers Markets, Part 3

I used these examples in Part 2 of this series, but wanted to use them again for this post. To review:

Market A (which runs on Saturday morning downtown) is asked by its city to participate in a traffic planning project that will offer recommendations for car-free weekend days in the city center. The city will also review the requirement for parking lots in every new downtown development and possibly recalibrate where parking meters are located. To do this, the city will add driving strips to the areas around the market to count the cars and will monitor the meters and parking lot uses over the weekend. The market is being asked for its farmers to track their driving for all trips to the city and ask shoppers to do Dot Surveys on their driving experiences to the market on the weekend. Public transportation use will be gathered by university students.

Market B is partnering with an agricultural organization and other environmental organizations to measure the level of knowledge and awareness about farming in the greater metropolitan area. For one summer month, the market and other organizations will ask their supporters and farmers to use the hashtag #Junefarminfo on social media to share any news about markets, farm visits, gardening data or any other seasonal agricultural news.

Market C is working with its Main Street stores to understand shopping patterns by gathering data on average sales for credit and debit users. The Chamber of Commerce will also set up observation stations at key intersections to monitor Main Street shopper behavior such as where they congregate.

Market D has a grant with a health care corporation to offer incentives and will ask those voucher users to track their personal health care stats and their purchase and consumption of fresh foods. The users will get digital tools such as cameras to record their meals, voice recorders to record their children’s opinions about the menus (to upload on an online log) with their health stats such as BP, exercise regimen. That data will be compared to the larger Census population.

So all those ideas show how markets and their partners might be able to begin to use the world of Big Data. In those examples, one can see how the market benefits from having data that is (mostly) collected without a lot of work on the market’s part and yet is useful for them and for the larger community that the market also serves.

However, one of the best ways that markets can benefit from Big Data is slightly closer to home and even more useful to the stability and growth of the market itself. That is: to analyze and map the networks that markets foster and maintain, which is also known as network theory.
Network theory is a relatively new science that rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s and is about exploring and defining the relationships that a person or a community has and how, through their influence, their behavior is altered. What’s especially exciting about this work is that it combines many disciplines from mathematics to economics to social sciences.

A social network perspective can mean that data about relationships between the individuals can be as useful as the data about individuals themselves. Some people talk about this work in terms of strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are the close relationships that we use with greater frequency and offer support and weak ties are those acquaintances who offer new information and connect us to other networks. The key is that in order to really understand a network, it is important to analyze the behavior of any member of the network in relation to other members action. This has a lot to do with incentives, which is obviously something markets have a lot of interest in.

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World. By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010. Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the book Networks, Crowds, and Markets: Reasoning about a Highly Connected World.
By David Easley and Jon Kleinberg. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Complete preprint on-line at http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

From the foodsystemsnetwork.org website

network analysis

network analysis

I could go on and on about different theories and updates and critiques on these ideas, but the point to make here is this is science that is so very useful to the type of networks that food systems are propagating. Almost all of the work that farmers markets do rely on network theory without directly ascribing to it.

Think about a typical market day: a market could map each vendors booth to understand what people come to each table, using Dot Surveys or intercept surveys. That data could assist the vendor and the market. The market will benefit in knowing which are the anchor vendors of the market, which vendors constantly attract new shoppers, which vendors share shoppers etc. The market could also find out who among their shoppers bring information and ideas into the market and who carrries them out to the larger world from the market. All of this data would be mapped visually and would allow the market to be strategic with its efforts, connecting the appropriate type of shoppers to the vendors, expanding the product list for the shoppers likely to purchase new goods and so on.

Network theory would be quite beneficial to markets in their work to expand the reach to benefit program users and in the use of incentives. Since these market pilots began around 2005/2006, it has been a struggle to understand how to create a regular, return user of markets among those who have many barriers to adding this style of health and civic engagement. Those early markets created campaigns designed to offer the multiple and unique benefits of markets as a reason for benefit program shoppers to spend their few dollars there. Those markets also worked to reduce the barriers whenever possible by working with agencies on providing shuttles, offering activities for children while shopping, and adding non-traditional hours and locations for markets. Those efforts in New York, Arizona, California, Maryland, Massachusetts and Louisiana (among others) were positive but the early results were very small, attracting only a few of the shoppers desired. When the outcomes were analyzed by those organizations, it seemed that a few issues were cropping up again and again:
1. The agency that distributed the news of these market programs didn’t understand markets or did not have a relationship of trust with their clients that encouraged introduction of new ideas or acceptance of advice in changing their habits.
2. The market itself was not ready to welcome new benefit program shoppers- too few items were available or the market was not always welcoming to new shoppers who required extra steps and new payment systems.
3. Targeting the right group of “early adopters” among the large benefit program shopping base was impossible to decipher.
4. Some barriers remained and were too large for markets alone to address (lack of transportation or distance for example).
4. Finding the time for staff to do all of that work.

Over time, markets did their best to address these concerns, which has led to the expansion of these systems into every state and a combined impact in the millions for SNAP purchases at markets alone. The cash incentives assisted a great deal, especially with #2 and #4. However, this work would be made so much easier and the impact so much larger if network theory was applied.
Consider:
Market A is going to add a centralized card processing system and has funds to offer a cash incentive. But how to spend it? And how to prepare the market for the program?

If the market joined forces with a public health agency and a social science research team from a nearby university, it might begin by mapping the networks in that market to understand the strong and weak ties it contains as well as the structural holes in its network. It might find out that its vendors attract few new shoppers regularly or that the market’s staff is not connected to many outside actors in the larger network, thereby reducing the chance for information to flow.
It might also see that younger shoppers are not coming to the market and therefore conclude that focusing its efforts on attracting older benefit program shoppers (especially at first) might be a strategic move. If the market has a great many low-income shoppers using FMNP coupons already, the mapping of those shoppers may offer much data about how the market supports benefit program shoppers already and how it might expand with an audience already at market
The public health agency might do the same mapping for the agencies that are meant to offer the news of the market’s program. That mapping might find certain agencies or centers are better at introducing new ideas or have a population that is aligned already with the market’s demographic and therefore likely to feel welcomed.

As for incentives, what markets and their partners routinely tell me is more money is not always the answer. Not knowing what is expected from the use of the incentives or how to reach the best audience for that incentive is exhausting them or at least, puzzling them.
If markets knew their networks and knew where the holes were, they could use their incentive dollars much more efficiently and run their markets without burning out their staff or partners.
They might offer different incentives for their different locations, based on the barriers or offerings for each location. (They may also offer incentives to their vendors to test out new crops.)
If connectors are seen in large numbers in a market, then a “bring a friend” incentive might be offered, or if the mapping shows a large number of families entering the system in that area, then an incentive for a family level shopping experience may be useful.
One of the most important hypotheses that markets should use in their incentive strategy is how can they create a regular shopper through the use of the incentive. Of course, it is not the only hypothesis for a market; a large flagship market might identify their role as introducing new shoppers to their markets every month and use their funds to do just that. But for many markets with limited staff and small populations in and around the market, a never-ending cycle of new shoppers coming in for a few months and then not returning may not be the most efficient way to spend those dollars or their time. So this is also where network theory could be helpful.
By asking those using their EBT card to tell in detail where and how they heard about the program and by also tracking the number of visits they have after their introduction, we could begin to see which introductions work the best. Or by asking a small group of new EBT shoppers to be members of a long-term shopping focus group to track what happens during their visit (how many vendors they purchase from and how long they stay) and after (see Market D example at the top), we could learn about what EBT shoppers in that area value in their market experience. We may also find out that the market has few long-term return shoppers from the EBT population or we may find out that connectors become easy to spot and therefore they can be rewarded when sharing information on the market’s behalf.
In all of these cases, it will be easier for the staff to know what to do and when to do it if they understand their networks both in and around the market.
And of course, mapping the larger food systems around the markets’ systems would be exciting and could move policy issues to action sooner and allow funding to be increased for initiatives to fill the holes found.

However markets do it, what seems necessary is to know specifically who is using markets and how and why they decided to begin to use them and to whom those folks are connected. Network theory can be the best and widest use of the world of Big Data, especially to accomplish what Farmers Market Coalition has set as their call to action: that markets are for everyone.

Some reading, if you are interested:

http://www.foodsystemnetworks.org

The Tipping Point

http://www.cs.cornell.edu/home/kleinber/networks-book/networks-book-ch03.pdf

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/301/5634/827.full.pdf

http://melander335.wdfiles.com/local–files/reading-history/kadushin.pdf

Maryland Food System Map | Center for a Livable Future

This is one of my favorite food system sites . Wouldn’t it be great if each state and every regional projects collected and shared this type of visual data?

A screen shot of the Maryland Food Map circa July 2013.

A screen shot of the Maryland Food System Map circa July 2013.


Note from the organizers:

Map updates include expanded Nutrition Assistance data and updated points of interest for Maryland.
Nutrition Assistance – new and updated data about federal nutrition assistance programs.
SNAP usage by Zip Code
Schools with 50% or more children who are eligible for free and reduced cost meals
Afterschool Meal Program Sites
WIC office locations
NOTE: The following existing data layers have been moved to this category:
SNAP Participation by County
SNAP Retailers
WIC Retailers
Points of Interest – updated points of interest note changes in addresses and expand lists statewide.
Institutional sites in this list – schools and hospitals – will be expanded further this year, as we gather data and statistics about how these institutions are using local food. Here are the layers currently updated:
Hospitals
Public schools
Recreation centers
Senior centers

Maryland Food System Map | Center for a Livable Future.