Changes in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are allowing new partnerships between local farmers and WIC outlets. WIC aims to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by distributing cash vouchers to low-income women with children to buy produce. The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) recently conducted a survey of the buying habits and produce preferences of WIC participants in three counties in California. The information from the study will be used to decide what kinds of produce to promote the most heavily during the development of the farm-to-WIC program.
Although the U.S. Dietary Guidelines emphasize the importance of eating fruits and vegetables to improve health, these foods are generally under-consumed in the U.S. Low-income households in particular face barriers to meeting these guidelines due to limited financial resources and low availability of fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods. Domestic food assistance programs can make it easier for people to buy more fruits and vegetables, but small stores in low-income neighborhoods find it difficult to provide high-quality produce at affordable prices. Programs like farm-to-WIC benefit both local farmers and WIC participants who generally lack access to healthy foods.
In the spring of 2010, in order to determine what produce items should be included in a farm-to-WIC program, UCCE surveyed WIC participants in Tulare, Riverside, and Alameda counties to determine the level of interest the participants felt for buying local foods and the factors that guide their shopping decisions. The questions on the survey included whether the participants had bought certain produce items in the last six months and whether they would be interested in buying them if they became available at their store.
The survey showed that the participants were interested in buying fresh produce with higher quality and more variety. The survey helped UCCE come up with a list of 19 produce items to include in a possible farm-to-WIC program, including cabbage, grapes, lettuce, mustard greens, and bell pepper. UCCE also developed fact sheets about different fruits and vegetables with tips on preparing them and serving them to young children. Stores involved in the farm-to-WIC project will distribute these handouts at the cash register in order to encourage program participants to purchase and cook with these products.
A farm stand in the town of Flowing Wells, Arizona offers another model of delivering fresh, local produce to low-income shoppers. The farm stand is run by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, and fruits and vegetables sold there are grown at the Food Bank’s Marana Heritage Farm and at the Food Bank’s demonstration garden. The farm stand is attractive for low-income customers because it accepts WIC checks, food stamps, and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers. In addition, the Food Bank is doubling the value of food stamps by up to $20 at the stand in order to draw more low-income shoppers.
The stand sells many different kinds of produce, including bright red tomatoes, citrus fruits, apples, radishes, potatoes, kale, and spinach. According to Sara Rickard, a farmers’ market assistant with the Food Bank, the produce sold at the farm stand is grown without pesticides, chemicals, or fertilizer, and is fresh from the gardens. “Most of it has been picked in the last 48 hours,” said Rickard.
Helping to give low-income shoppers access to fresh, local foods will allow them to eat healthfully in a country where unhealthy foods are often cheaper and more convenient to buy. It will also open up a new market for local, sustainable foods. Farmers throughout the US–especially beginning farmers–should be alert to opportunities to advocate for programs like the farm-to-WIC program in their own states. Programs like this are an important way to bring local, fresh foods to those who would not otherwise be able to access such products.