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Innovative program offers low-income families more fresh fruit and vegetables

Three grocery stores across the state are taking part in the pilot project.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson announcing the launch of the SNAP+ pilot program Friday afternoon, at Almsted's Fresh Market in Crystal.
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Human Services

Lower-income Minnesotans have the opportunity to buy more fresh fruit and vegetables this summer thanks to a pilot program being launched in three grocery stores across the state.

Participants enrolled in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will use their Electronic Benefit Transfer card to buy $5 worth of say fresh strawberries or spinach and in return will receive a $5 coupon toward their next fresh produce purchase.

Participating food stores are located in Crystal, Cass Lake and Duluth, areas with high poverty rates, health disparities and “demonstrated need for healthier eating,’’ according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services. DHS is conducting the program in partnership with the Minnesota Grocers Association and Minnesota Grown.

Five dollars at my neighborhood grocery buys me on sale a dozen navel oranges or two pounds of strawberries or three ears of corn, a bell pepper and a stalk of celery right now but will likely buy more as Minnesota produce ripens.

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“We are excited about the SNAP+ ( say “SNAP plus) pilot because it puts healthy food directly in the hands of those who need it,’’ Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson said recently at Almsted’s Fresh Market in Crystal in announcing the launch. The pilot runs through Sept. 30.

On hand as well at the launch last week was Ross Safford, outreach specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension’s Simply Good Eating program, demonstrating a simple recipe for a fresh spinach-leaf and strawberry salad with a homemade, inexpensive oil and cider vinegar dressing.

Safford, trained as a chef and former director of a shelter for homeless people in Connecticut for a number of years, now teaches “food literacy,” as he puts it. That includes how to buy food economically and prepare it in tasty and nutritious ways, through the SNAP education program.

“For a lot of the people I work with, a green pepper is a luxury,” Safford told me.

What’s in the grocery cart for persons with smaller food budgets hinges on cost and hesitancy to try new foods, he said. The Simply Good Eating program also teaches cooking skills and new ways of preparing foods.  

To learn more, Safford directed me to the Simply Good Eating website which details problems some Minnesotans face: “People with limited resources often run short of food at the end of the month. Some may not realize they could make healthier choices at the store or better use of the food they bring home.” The program offers nutrition classes at schools, clinics and community events around the state.

Ross Safford
Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Human ServicesRoss Safford, outreach specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension’s Simply Good Eating program, demonstrating how to use fresh produce and other healthy ingredients to make a spinach and strawberry salad.

Last year Simply Good Eating staff taught classes for nearly 70,000 individuals and worked with about 1,200 agencies, Safford said.

The $150,000 cost of the SNAP+ program is paid for through the state’s portion of a federal government bonus for increasing SNAP access for eligible residents, DHS says.

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Other bonus money going toward food programs for low-income Minnesotans includes the Summer Backpack Program for kids, an effort to connect eligible low-income and Latino and Hmong communities to SNAP benefits and to expand mobile food-shelf capacity.

Besides Almsted’s the program is available at Teal’s Market in Cass Lake and Super One Foods in Duluth.