Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WIC and Farmers' Markets: A New Opportunity

On October 1, 2009 the Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Program (WIC) extensively expanded their food package to include many more healthy options for mothers and children. The new package emphasizes healthy choices like whole grains, low-sugar juices, and for the first time, the addition of fruit and vegetables. WIC participants can purchase fruit and vegetables using the new “cash value voucher,” or CVV. These CVVs will be distributed in amounts of $6.00 for children, $8.00 for mothers and $10.00 for breastfeeding mothers. Another lesser known new addition to the WIC package is each state’s ability to authorize farmers’ markets to accept the new CVVs. This change in the states’ legal authority has exciting potential. The ability to use WIC at farmers’ markets could boost both WIC recipients’ nutritional health and provide more business to local farmers and agriculture.

Much confusion surrounds this new addition, because a program that allows WIC recipients to shop at farmers’ markets already exists: the Farmers’ Markets Nutrition Program, or FMNP. WIC recipients (and also seniors, through local Area Agencies on Aging) can receive checks to use at farmers’ markets at their WIC agency. But the numbers of FMNP usage are disappointing. In the fiscal year 2008, 8.7 million Americans received WIC benefits, but only 2.3 million WIC recipients received FMNP benefits (USDA, 2009). Actual redemption rates are even lower. Federal allocation rates also illustrate the importance of WIC in the farmers’ markets: an estimated $500 million is allocated for WIC, twenty-five times more than FMNP. If only 4% of all fruits and vegetables purchased with the CVVs were purchased at farmers’ markets, it would still match the entirety of the FMNP utilization from WIC participation (Community Food Security Coalition, 2009).

The benefits of adopting the CVVs in farmers’ markets seem obvious, and many states including New Jersey, New York, and California have implemented pilot CVV programs in farmers’ markets. However, Pennsylvania is currently not planning on implementing any pilot programs. According to a 2009 report by the Community Food Security Coalition, the reasons for Pennsylvania’s hesitation lie in structural and funding issues. But many states had similar issues, including California, who shares a unique check-cashing method with Pennsylvania. This issue will continue to be relevant, especially with the continually-rising numbers of people who depend on WIC and other food programs to feed their families. Pennsylvania leaders should be open to discussions about this wonderful opportunity for both Pennsylvania mothers and local farmers.

Anne Wachtel is a social work intern at Just Harvest.

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