Our GM’s Remarks From the Hunger Cliff: A Virtual Food Insecurity Discussion


SNAP at TPSS Pre-Pandemic

Before the pandemic SNAP sales were a relatively small percentage of TPSS sales. From 2013-2019 they were between 1 and half a percent of overall store sales, and were actually declining year over year as a percent of sales.  This trend was the same nationally, SNAP spending decreased by almost $10b across the country from 2015-2019, despite the number of authorized stores remaining relatively unchanged.  In 2019, about $55b in SNAP was spent at grocery stores around the country.  

Crossroads and TPSS – 2020 Pilot

In 2020, those numbers took a dramatic turn upwards.  Pandemic elevated SNAP dollars and a sudden increase in the number of people eligible caused SNAP sales nationally to jump from $55b in 2019 to $79b in 2020 and $125b in 2021, more than doubling 2019 levels.  The number of stores that accepted SNAP remained steady so those stores received the benefits of increased spending levels.  

So that sets the stage for what was going on nationally and at the Co-op before the pandemic, declining YOY SNAP spending, followed by a boom.  

In Spring of 2020, Crossroads had roughly $5000 in funds from their previous GusNIP grant that they anticipated wouldn’t be spent at during their market season.  They approached TPSS to apply to the USDA for a project waiver to run a pilot where we matched spending on fruits and vegetables in the Co-op for SNAP recipients dollar for dollar using those grant funds.  USDA agreed to the waiver, so we got to work setting up the program.  

At the on-set of this in May 2020, TPSS was closed to the public and only operating as an online retailer filling orders for customers to pick up.  USDA to that point didn’t allow SNAP purchases online, so we had to build a work-around into our system so SNAP users could place their order fully without inputting payment, then pay with their card when they arrived to pick up. 

In order to apply the GusNIP funds, we had to create the program from scratch in our Point of Sale system, since it was not a typical sales discount arrangement.  When we rang up an order for a customer paying with SNAP, we had to discount any fruits and vegetables in the order by 50%, and charge 50% to their SNAP card and 50% to the Grant.  

The pilot lasted 5 months until Sept 2020.  By that point TPSS was open to the public for shopping again, but utilization of the pilot program was small, a few hundred dollars a month.  

Oct 2020 – Applying to GusNIP

In late Sept of 2020, we had to make a decision on what to do with the program.  We no longer had grant funds to offset the cost, but it was also a relatively small expense.  We decided to keep doing the matching for the rest of our fiscal year, through June of 2021 and try to fundraise from customers through roundups at the register and in online orders to offset what we could.  

We ended 2020 having matched $2300, both during and after the grant period.  It did have a noticeable and immediate impact however in SNAP purchasing even with that small incentive number.  SNAP sales increased storewide from half a percent to one percent of sales, and in produce the department SNAP percentage of sales went from .6 to 1.57, nearly tripling.  

Starting in 2021, the program really started to take off.  Solely through word of mouth and with very little marketing efforts, the numbers began to increase month over month.  This does logically make sense, as people came to learn that they could get organic fruits and vegetables half off, they came back over and over again.  Pandemic SNAP benefits continued at elevated levels for the entirety of the year.  At the end of 2021, we had matched $39,000.  Our overall store SNAP percentage increased from one percent to 2.5%, a 150% increase.  In produce, it went from 1.5% to 5.4%, an almost 250% increase.  In real dollars, we went from $70k in store SNAP sales to $213k.  The increase in SNAP spending was also greater in the overall store than just what we saw in produce, meaning that people were coming to take advantage of the SNAP double-up in produce, but they were also then spending more SNAP dollars on other items throughout the store.  

In 2022 the program continued to grow.  It was clear early in 2022 that while the Co-op could fund a program of a few hundred dollars a month and plug the gap with donations, we needed another level of funding for a benefit that was now closer to $5k per month.  While in the early stages of considering our options, the USDA opened applications for a new round of GusNIP grants and we applied as a partner to Crossroads to fund fruit and vegetable incentives at both the Crossroads Farmer’s Market and at TPSS.  

Having a retailer involved meant we could apply for a larger and longer-term grant than Crossroads had previously done on their own, and it meant having somewhere open 14 hours a day and 362 days per year that SNAP recipients could receive this benefit.  A key difference between food security which just tries to get food to those who need it, and food sovereignty is choice.  I am proud of this program for a number of reasons, but the fact that people can choose the foods they want, pick the exact amount of produce they want.  The ripeness and size and quantity they choose.   

TPSS was still funding the 50% match ourselves throughout 2022 and the numbers continued to show incredible growth and impact.  We matched $67k in 2022, almost doubling the $39k we did in 2021.  SNAP sales in the produce department grew from 5.4% of department sales to 7.6%, and overall SNAP purchases at TPSS grew to nearly 3% of store sales.  

Looking at the growth between 2019, before we had this program and 2022, it’s been nothing short of transformative.  We went from SNAP representing half a percent of store sales, to nearly 3%, and SNAP purchases in the produce department grew from .6% to 7.6%, a more than 12x increase. 

Goals and Outcomes of the Project

Now that TPSS and Crossroads have received this USDA grant, we know we have 4 years where this program will be funded and we can continue to grow and deepen our impact.  We have a project goal to reach 3000 unique SNAP shoppers over the course of the four years.  It’s wonderful that we already have a strong base of repeat shoppers that are utilizing the matching, but reaching even more people is key.  

We will also be piloting online SNAP purchasing through the Co-op, which will include the matching dollars on produce.  Since USDA began allowing online SNAP in 2020, it’s been large chain retailers that have mostly been approved, but we’re excited to get TPSS into that program.  We’ll be tracking a number of impacts of this program, including on our local and regional produce purchasing at TPSS.  More sales in our produce department mean we can buy even more products from our small and local farms.  

What I haven’t touched on to this point is the incredible administrative burden of both applying for and implementing this grant.  If there’s anyone from USDA on the call, please mute me for a few seconds, but USDA is pretty paperwork intensive.  They tell you you were awarded a grant, but they don’t tell you you were also awarded a new full time job.  

I say that to say that we intend to make the most impact we possibly can with this program, but it’s also my intention to take what we learned through the course of applying and being selected to hopefully help other co-ops or likeminded organizations throughout the country be able to apply and know they have someone they can turn to along the road who has done it before.  I honestly don’t know if we would have gotten any of this off the ground if it weren’t for Crossroads, an organization with a deep history with the GusNIP program, so it’s so important to have someone who can help you along the way if we want to make sure more places in the country get to receive the benefit of a program like this. 

Mike Houston
General Manager