Key Nutrition Program Hits Snags at Farmers' Markets

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The Union Square Farmers' Market. When the WIC program incorporated more fruits and vegetables like the ones sold here, there was a dramatic effect on obesity rates.

Photo by: postdlf

The Union Square Farmers' Market. When the WIC program incorporated more fruits and vegetables like the ones sold here, there was a dramatic effect on obesity rates.

Among the stacks of fruits, the branded meshed jars of jam and jelly, the cornucopia of flowers and plants, New York City farmers markets display what may seem at first glance mementos of a bygone era: monetized tokens. But instead of relics of a younger subway system, these tokens are a symbol of one of the modern city's most successful farmer market initiatives.

When the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, switched over to an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system at the start of the decade its usage at farmers markets, whose booths have little access to electricity and whose members cannot easily afford wireless technology, was threatened with extinction. In 2005, however, New York City installed centralized EBT terminals at markets where SNAP recipients could transfer funds into $1 or $5 tokens, and by 2007, SNAP money spent at farmers markets skyrocketed to $40,000, from a meager $1,000 two years prior.

But not all SNAP-related food aid programs at farmers markets have similar success stories. Take the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), a federal food aid administered by states that covers just over a half million infants, children aged one through four, and pregnant and postpartum women in the New York. Despite initial promising results from new policies, its usage at farmers markets is still plagued with inefficiencies, red tape, and reluctant vendors.

Produce? Yes. Potatoes? No.

In 2006, New York State began experimenting with $5 vouchers for fruits and vegetables for local residents using WIC. The experiment was so successful that three years later, on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the federal government revamped the entire WIC program, requiring whole grain and low-fat milk in its food packages and expanding its almost nonexistent produce options with monthly Fruit and Vegetable (F&V) vouchers, set at $10 for mothers and $8 per child. Unlike SNAP, these food packages and vouchers, which adhere to specific UDSA guidelines on product restrictions and monthly allowances, strictly dictate what WIC recipients can purchase with their funds.

The change, the first major revision to WIC since its inception in 1974, had profound results for New York city children. A study of the eating habits and obesity rates of over 500,000 local children up to four years of age noted a marked rise in their daily consumption of fruits vegetables and whole grains, and a drop in the number of obese and overweight kids after the implementation of the new guidelines. Throughout the U.S., obesity in children aged two to five plummeted 43 percent over the past decade—a trend attributed, among other factors, to the recent WIC changes.

Though WIC only accounted for $6.4 billion of the federal government’s total 2013 food aid expenditures—vastly dwarfed by the almost $80 billion spent on SNAP— its impact is vast. A study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service examining WIC eligibility found that over half of all infants in the country, and around 44 percent of children aged one to four, were born into families with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, the threshold for WIC eligibly. Though all these families are not on WIC, WIC currently serves over half of all infants born in the U.S.

The recent WIC changes, however, have not been without controversy, especially over one of the few food items F&V vouchers cannot purchase: white potatoes. While the 2006 changes to WIC allowed for the purchase of sweet potatoes and yams, the Institute of Medicine found that low-income children ate more starchy vegetables than recommended by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. Most of the excess came in the form of white potatoes, a staple that made up around 40 percent of the children’s daily vegetable consumption.

The exclusion of white potatoes brought on a wave of lobbying from firms representing potato farmers aiming to roll back the restrictions, including the National Potato Council, which spent the same amount on lobbying in 2013 alone as it did from of all 2009 to 2012. Senators from potato-growing states, including New York, support rescinding the ban, and both House and Senate appropriation committees included language to reinstate the white potato in WIC food packages in their spending bills.

Defenders of the WIC change, which include the Obama administration, worry about putting politics ahead of nutrition, and are hesitant to approve any change before a USDA review of the revamped WIC program is released in 2015. They are skeptical of politicizing the WIC by allowing Congress, for the first time ever, to legislate food inclusion, instead of the USDA.

Restrictions limit local success

The resistance to the white potatoes ban is also complicating the lives of New Yorkers on WIC—local farmers are slow to sign on as WIC Fruit and Vegetable Vendors, in no small part due to opposition to its food restrictions.

A 2013 report by Citizen's Committee for Children of New York, which surveyed 35 farmers representing over 200 New York City farmers-market booths, concluded that only a limited number of farmers accepted WIC F&V checks, with half of respondents calling the restriction of white potatoes a significant barrier to their participation as a WIC vendor. A third of respondents said the same about the WIC's prohibition on purchasing herbs and spices. Others questioned the health benefits of such restrictions, and noted the unfair burden on some local groups, like the local African and Caribbean communities, whom regularly use the banned items in their ethnic cuisine.

By the end of 2010, the report found, WIC participants redeemed only $13,000 out of a total $33 million F&V checks allocated by the state at farmers markets operated by GrowNYCs Greenmarkets, one of the largest farmers market organizations in the city.

A different approach

While WIC participants may use their F&V checks at the many WIC vendor stores in New York City—which must stock all approved food items—the barriers to using WIC vouchers at farmers markets is cruelly ironic given the success of the separate Farmers Market Nutrition program (FMNP).

Started in 1992, FMNP subsidizes WIC participants and senior citizens with income under certain thresholds to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables at outdoor markets. In New York state, WIC recipients receive an FMNP annual allotment of $24 in six checks for use only during the harvest season, which runs June 1st to November 30th.

FMNP, which unlike WIC does not have any food restrictions outside of the general barrier to buying non-produce items, is tremendously popular with New York City’s WIC population: In 2010 alone they redeemed over half of New York State's $5.5 million FMNP checks at one of GrowNYC's farmers markets. The following year, the program had around 1,000 participating farmers in New York state, operating within 464 outdoor markets. Of the farmers surveyed by Citizen's Committee for Children, over 90 percent said FMNP checks positively impacted their sales, compared with the 30 percent whom said the same of WIC F&V checks, even though FMNP provides far less purchasing power.

The resistance to WIC at farmers markets, however, runs deeper than the aversion to food item restrictions—farmers are also hesitant to sign up because of administrative burdens. Unlike FMNP, for example, farmers who accept WIC at markets must go through a mandatory interactive training each year, either in person or through a webcast. In addition, the programs have vastly different application processes—while New York's FMNP form is one page, updated annually, the WIC form is more complex and several pages long, and farmers must notarize it every time they apply.

"It is a real challenge for farmers to enroll and stay current in the program—they have to do the training every year and re-apply every three years, and it's not connected with the FMNP application, either," says Nadia Johnson, spokeswoman for Just Food, a local non-profit organization which supports community and health food initiatives in the city, especially in low-income neighborhoods. "It would be much better to have one easy application instead of being separated into different processes."

The deposit rules are likewise different for both programs— farmers must deposit WIC checks into bank accounts within 60 days of each check's monthly expiration date, yet can deposit or cash FMNP checks at any point during the growing season.

"The process is not streamlined, it is too laborious and time consuming to cash in the vouchers," says Ray Bradley, owner of Bradley Farms in New Paltz, who sells at Greenmarkets at Brooklyn's Grand Plaza and on West 97th street. "Sometimes I would be so busy they would expire, because I never got around to depositing them."

Checking the expiration date on WIC F&V checks is also an administrative point-of-sale burden for farmers, but only one of several—they must scrutinize a customer's ID and make sure each WIC F&V check is signed as well, a significant hurdle for markets accustomed to quick, steady cash dealings and seamless FMNP check transactions.

Change on the menu

To be sure, mandated changes to the program will alleviate some of these problems. As required by the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, all states must implement EBT capability for their WIC programs by 2020. EBT, already in use for SNAP, provides recipients with a card that they can use like a debit card to draw down benefits. But while some states are set to fully implement these changes to WIC by this year or 2015, New York is lagging behind, still in the planning phase with no estimated pilot start date, or official roll-out date.

As New York drags its feet on vital WIC changes, it's expanding the purchasing power of its SNAP residents at farmers markets. In 2005, the state implemented a "Health Bucks program" which provides a $2 farmers market coupon for every $5 spent in SNAP at a participating market.

But despite the immensity of New York City's SNAP Population—at around 1.8 million it would be the nation's fifth largest city after Philadelphia if incorporated into its own entity—the program's limited funds means only a certain amount of coupons are released each year. In 2012, for example, just over $300,000 was distributed as SNAP incentive coupons city-wide. While some WIC participants are also on SNAP, their ability to utilize these coupons is constrained.

Coordinating between all the food-aid programs that low-income buyers use at farmers markets—FMNP, SNAP, WIC and Health Bucks—can also be problematic because each one is run by a different state agency. Yet maximizing low-income buyers' supplementary food aid is a chief concern to farmers markets, given that the federal food-aid money spent at markets in low income areas of the city is existential their very existence in those areas.

"Most markets put forth a huge effort to make sure people who receive WIC know they can use their checks at their booths," says Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht, owner of Garden of Eve Organic Farm & Market in Aquebogue, New York, who sells at the Greenpoint-Williamsburg Greenmarket.

GROWNYC, for example, organizes "Health Days" at its markets to spread WIC education, assists New York State departments in developing a farmers market curriculum for WIC centers and even provides free market coupons through a "WIC+" program to those who use WIC F&V checks at their venues.

Increasing WIC F&V education and usage at markets is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle—bureaucratic inefficiencies holding back vendors stunt any effort to fully optimize farmers markets for low-income mothers and children. The recent success with SNAP and the popularity of FMNP at New York City's markets bode well for WIC, but while momentum for change is there, much still remains to be done.

"We really haven't seen growth with WIC F&V checks like we have with other food aid at locals farmers markets," says Johnson. "Incentives just don't exist for these checks yet."