Fresh-food advocates, who have long maintained that epidemic obesity in low-income neighborhoods is the result of little or no access to affordable produce, appear to have more evidence on their side now, the health department's Sara Solomon said.
"We are very pleased with what we see," Solomon said.
To fight obesity, the department embarked on a series of nutrition, education, and exercise initiatives with a total cost of $1.5 million received in federal dollars over two years.
Philly Food Bucks, which has cost $160,000 over two years, has shown the most immediate, measurable results.
"These numbers confirm our belief that when fresh fruits and vegetables are available, visible, and affordable, people will eat healthier," Solomon said.
"This is a key message to other retail environments: If the right pricing, promotion, and products are in place, we can increase consumer demand and, therefore, consumption of fresh, healthy foods," she said.
To run the program, the department contracted with the Food Trust, a nonprofit with years of experience providing farmers' markets, nutrition education, and farm-to-school programs.
Taking a page from a somewhat similar project in New York City, the Food Trust suggested Philly Food Bucks here.
In 2009, before the food bucks were issued, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) sales at Food Trust farmers' markets totaled $11,500. In 2010, that figured more than doubled, to $29,140. And for the 2011 season, which will end after Thanksgiving, sales are poised to far surpass the 2010 numbers.
"Sales just skyrocketed in June and July 2011. We're on target to sell much more than last year," said Jon Glyn of the Food Trust, "and that doesn't count some of the busiest months of the farm market season - August, September, October, and November."
The bucks, looking like oversize dollar bills embellished with a carrot emblem, give SNAP shoppers a 40 percent return on their money - that is, $2 in food bucks to use at Food Trust farmers' markets for every $5 in SNAP dollars they spend on produce there.
The Headhouse market in Society Hill and the Clark Park market at 43d Street and Baltimore Avenue are just two of the 26 operated by the Food Trust.
The program is slated to end at the end of March, Solomon said.
"The tremendous success of the pilot is a good indicator that the program will be an appealing candidate for future grants or private funding," she said.
Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @marderd on Twitter. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/diannamarder