Local Brothers Develop Technology to Bring Healthy Food to Flint

For five years, Epic Technology Solutions of Flint, MI and Double Up Food Bucks have teamed together to produce the software needed to add more fresh produce to the diet of the city’s residents through Michigan’s statewide healthy food incentive program.

“We did not have to go to Silicon Valley for this tech innovation; we found local talent in Flint,” said Oran Hesterman, CEO of Fair Food Network which expanded Double Up in Flint response to the city’s water crisis. “They had exactly what we needed.”

With the Double Up program powered by Epic Technology software, Flint residents can earn and redeem credits to bring home more fruits and vegetables when they spend their SNAP benefits at the Flint farmers markets and other participating grocery store sites in the community. (SNAP stands for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.)

For example, if a shopper buys any fruit, veggies, or milk with their SNAP benefits at a participating site, they get a dollar-for-dollar match of free Double Up Food Bucks (up to $20 per day) to spend on any fresh fruits or vegetables at that store or another participating Double Up site in Flint. Recent statistics show that the amount spent with Double Up Food Bucks has increased by 60 percent in the past year.

“We like working with a program that promotes healthy eating and is good for Flint residents,” said Paul Knific, 30, who along with his brother Eric, 27, are the founding partners of Epic Technology Solutions.

The Knifics grew up in Flushing, MI, about 15 miles outside of Flint, and graduated from the University of Michigan’s Flint campus in Computer Science. Since they began Epic in 2008, their goal has been for Epic to be an ethically responsible IT company that could help Flint become a beacon of technology innovation.

“We are two brothers who decided to remain in Flint and help solve problems in the community,” he said. Epic got a boost from the University of Michigan-Flint’s Innovation Incubator, which has helped Epic incubate its innovative ideas by providing an office space, professional advice and assisting Epic in reaching out to the community.

Epic and Fair Food Network first connected back in 2011 when Double Up launched in Flint. The electronic processing system debuted at the Flint Farmers Market was the first time benefits were electronically distributed of any incentive program in the country.

When Fair Food Network decided to expand and enhance the program in the wake of the water crisis, it turned again to Epic to enhance the technology at the market and make a system that would allow shoppers to carry their benefits between any participating site in the city. Now, vendors can use iPads to record sales and purchasers will soon be able to check their balances on their cellphones.

Epic is committed to staying and building the company in Flint, Knific said. The water crisis that befell Flint, when lead entered the water system due to government negligence, bothers him. “It was very unfortunate what happened with the crisis,” he said. “We felt before the crisis that we were rebuilding a post-industrial economy.”

Although the crisis is “depressing,” he said, the effort with Double Up Food Bucks to improve the health of the city’s residents is encouraging. “The program is a glimmer of light that we can still make a difference,” he said.

Robert Barkin is a freelance writer, graduate of the University of Michigan, and the Columbia School of Journalism. For more information on Double Up Food Bucks and Fair Food Network, please email [email protected]