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New program buoys purchases of fresh food with food stamps

Brandaleen Harper used to have trouble affording produce for herself and her son, Gabriel.

Harper works part time in child care and said her food stamps often don’t stretch far enough to cover everything she’d like to buy.

But a new program through the Spokane Regional Health District and the Washington State Department of Health is making it easier for people using food stamps to buy fruits and vegetables.

Called Complete Eats, it gives people a $5 voucher toward a fruit and vegetable purchase when they spend $10 on eligible fruit and vegetables at any Safeway store. Canned, frozen and fresh items are all fair game, so long as there’s no added sugar or salt.

The coupon prints automatically when customers pay with their food stamp card at Safeway stores.

Those coupons have given Harper a way to multiply the food stamps she receives to include more produce.

“When something’s not on sale or not on my budget, I can budget it in,” she said. Steamed broccoli and carrots are Gabriel’s favorites, she said, as she bought apples, bananas, cucumbers and celery at a news conference announcing the program Wednesday at the Shadle Safeway.

Complete Eats is a statewide effort funded through a two-year federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington received a $5.86 million award for nutrition programs for food stamps and is matching $5.91 million in state and local funds.

The bulk of the grant is being used to fund fruit and vegetable incentives, including farmers market programs that allow people to swipe their food stamp cards at participating markets and receive bonus vouchers to spend on produce. Health workers have also been passing out vouchers for fruits and vegetables to food stamp recipients who attend workshops on topics like healthy eating.

In Spokane, the program is run by community health workers, who have a network of advocates spread across low-income apartment buildings.

Margaret Braun, the lead community health worker at the health district, said she works with about 250 people every month across nine properties.

Braun said many of the people she’s talked to want to eat healthier foods but tend to buy calorie-dense items instead of fresh produce because they’re focused on staying full enough to get through the month.

“One young mom actually cried when I handed her a voucher because she was going to be able to buy food for her child that month,” Braun said. She’s seen seniors who can afford their first batch of asparagus or blueberries in years.

Healthier diets can reduce risk for many chronic diseases, including diabetes and heart disease, and many families want to be eating more produce. But affording it can be difficult.

“It’s nice to be able to say, ‘You need to eat more fruits and vegetables,’ and hand them something so they can,” Braun said.

About 119,000 Spokane County residents used food stamps in 2016, the health district said.

Harper found out about the program through her mother, Kathleen, who’s an advocate at Agnes Kehoe Place in Hillyard.

Families in her building are eating more fruits and vegetables thanks to the program, she said. She’s been able to eat more fresh salad as well.

Kathleen Harper used to work at Zip’s and Keytronics and is now disabled and not able to work, she said.

She said she likes attending health district trainings because they give her a way to help people.

“It’s been fun. It’s been empowering,” she said.

The Department of Health reached out to a number of grocery stores asking if they’d be interested in participating in the program, said Meghan Jacobson, health educator at the health district. Safeway was the only one that said yes, and the company has contributed $1.5 million toward the program.

The chain has stores in nearly every county in Washington, including eight in Spokane, which are all participating. Safeway customers started receiving coupons in June with eligible purchases.

Jordan Wilson, district manager for the greater Spokane-area Safeway stores, said produce has been “flying off the shelves” since they started offering coupons.

Coupons will be available through May 2019, or until funding for Complete Eats runs out, and more information is available at myhealthylifespokane.org.


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