As we've written before, food is expensive, healthy food even more so, and everything we eat is getting costlier all the time. For low-income people, particularly parents of small children, buying fresh, healthy food can be a formidable challenge--calorie for calorie, the most affordable food is generally also the least nutritious.
In the US, millions of citizens rely on direct government food subsidies in the form of food stamps or cash assistance. As of 2003, the last year for which numbers are available, 21.3 million US citizens used food stamps every month, and as of 2006, more than 8 million women, infants, and children participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (more commonly known as WIC) monthly. But it wasn't until last year that WIC even began paying for fresh fruits and vegetables at all--previously, the only produce WIC subsidized was carrots for breastfeeding women. The produce subsidy is a welcome change, but it still falls far short of what is needed: $8 for women and $6 for children monthly.
State agencies, in many cases, have shown a willingness to play a larger role in low-income nutrition assistance; so far, 45 of the 50 US states have signed on to participate in WIC's Farmers Market Nutrition Program, which provides cash grants to states for farmers market programs; those states in turn certify farmers' markets and produce stands to take WIC coupons. So far, more than 14,000 farmers and 2,700 farmers' markets have been authorized by states to participate in the program. Farmers' markets are more critical to low-income people than is commonly recognized; in fact, a recent study in Los Angeles showed that low-income women who shopped at farmers' markets bought twice as much fresh produce as those who get their groceries at supermarkets. Tellingly, the women who participated in that study got $10 in vouchers per week—five times as much as the current monthly WIC produce allotment.
The solution, then, is certifying far more farmers than are currently participating in the program, getting farmers' market vouchers to WIC participants, and drastically increasing the size of vouchers for produce. However, since the federal government has shown a tendency to take baby steps, at best, toward expanding assistance for poor women and children, states and cities are stepping in to fill the gap. One promising program comes out of Portland, Oregon, where all the farmers' markets now accept the state's electronic food-stamp debit cards. Participants use their debit cards just like credit cards to buy wooden tokens that can be used at booths just like cash. Last year, the markets took in $1,300 a month from electronic food stamps--a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Other states, including Connecticut, Washington, and Colorado, have set up programs for farmers' markets to accept their state's electronic food-stamp cards. The creation and expansion of programs like these will help expand access to healthy, fresh food for low-income people--and dispel the myth that low-income people "prefer" to buy unhealthy, processed food.
Great post! Thanks for highlighting the challenges that families of modest means face in this country. I live in Pasadena, CA, where we have three farmers markets throughout the week. The Villa Market, on Tuesday mornings, is located in a low-income neighborhood near a community center. The market is different from the South Pasadena market and the Saturday morning market near Pasadena High School, because the majority of people use federal food stamps or WIC benefits to purchase their produce. I feel it is important to place markets in low-income neighborhoods, near community centers and provide education about the purchase of healthy produce. I have found that the produce is very reasonably priced at the farmers' market. In fact, it is usually cheaper than at the grocery store. Despite all the challenges of the 2007 farm bill, both the House and Senate versions will expand funding to fruits and vegetables programs. I hope this will expand farmers markets and education programs.