Earlier today, the USDA announced that 35 organizations across the country will receive grants totaling $69 million as part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s COVID-19 relief program. The news release stated that the goal of these funds is in part to “address critical food and nutrition security needs of low-income communities enduring the pandemic.”
One of those organizations is Link Up Illinois, which aims to help make farm-fresh foods more affordable and accessible. The group applied to fund a three-year project and was awarded $3 million, which executive director Corey Chatman says will expand its Link Match program in an effort to improve eating behaviors.
“In order to see any type of incremental change, you really have to support a program over the long haul,” Chatman says. “We have to try to make [fresh produce] available and affordable as long as we can. And then, hopefully, that trickles over to the farmer producing more product.”
Like Link Up Illinois, many of the organizations focus on stretching SNAP dollars when users shop at local markets or chosen retailers. Virginia Fresh Match, awarded more than $2 million, doubles the value of SNAP credits if users use them at farmers markets. Get the Good Stuff NYC offers similar benefits, allowing shoppers to stockpile loyalty points to use on future purchases when they purchase fruits and vegetables. That program will use the roughly $5 million they were granted to expand their program to 10 additional stores, more than doubling the number of participants in the process.
In New Mexico, the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment Program plans to use the funds to address rising food security needs among Navajo individuals and enhance food and health care systems in the Navajo Region.
In Chicago, the Link Match program is of particular benefit to Black and Latinx communities, both of which were hit especially hard over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Latinx people make up more than a third of the city’s COVID infections and deaths, despite representing only about 15 percent of the population. For Chicago’s marginalized communities, food insecurity is an ongoing problem, which Chatman says was only made worse by COVID-19.
“There’s the supply chain, just getting food into the stores. There’s people having to get to the stores to get food,” Chatman says. “COVID has touched everything and especially has made it very difficult for people to get access to fresh food.” Despite the difficulties, Link Match was able to expand to four new markets across Chicago in 2020. With the new grant funds, it hopes to grow the program across the state.
In a news release, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack noted that advancing nutrition security is a top priority for the USDA. He goes on to say that the grants “will help households in communities across the country—many hard-hit by the pandemic and the resulting economic challenges—be better equipped to purchase healthy fruits and vegetables.”