Fill Your Prescription at the Farmers Market

By Jin Ju Wilder

Farmers Market Vendor

An apple a day...

President Obama’s administration, especially the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has consistently supported the growth of sustainable local and regional food systems. Recently, USDA increased funding of a program that supports sustainable local food systems and, they believe, also addresses the issue of food deserts.

Food deserts are areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious foods, and they can be found in urban, rural and tribal neighborhoods. This USDA Locator shows where the currently identified food deserts are found.

USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will competitively award grants to projects that develop producer-to-consumer market outlets, including, but not limited to, farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and road-side stands. Priority status will be granted to those projects that expand healthy food choices in food deserts.

On June 3, 2011, Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced approximately $10 million in funding for the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) to help increase availability of local agricultural products in communities throughout the country:

“These grants will put resources into rural and urban economies to create and support direct marketing opportunities for farmers. Consumer and farmer enthusiasm for direct marketing has never been greater. This year we will place emphasis on food deserts because America’s low income and underserved communities need greater access to healthy, fresh food.”

Since 1994, USDA has counted the number of operational U.S. farmers markets and the number of has skyrocketed from 1,755 to 7,175 during that time. More than 1,000 farmers markets have started in the U.S. over the past year, up 17% compared with a year ago.

California has the greatest number of farmers markets with the most recent tally at 729. “The remarkable growth in farmers markets is an excellent indicator of the staying power of local and regional foods,” Merrigan said.  “These outlets provide economic benefits for producers to grow their businesses and also to communities by providing increased access to fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods.”

USDA, in coordination with the Departments of the Treasury and Health and Human Services, seeks to eliminate food deserts by increasing access to fresh, healthy and affordable food choices, while expanding market opportunities for farmers and ranchers.

To further increase access to healthy foods for the population that needs the most assistance, AMS will continue to target 10% of grant funding toward new electronic benefits transfer projects at farmers markets. Almost 12% of all the markets reported the ability to accept food stamp benefits, an increase of 16%. Last year, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchases totaled $7.5 million at farmers markets and direct-to-consumer food retail establishments.

A local example of a farmers market accepting payment through food assistance programs is the South Pasadena Farmers Market. Qualifying consumers can now use CalFresh (SNAP in California), the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) at the farmers market.

CalFresh customers can visit the information booth and slide their card through the point-of-sale device to access food stamps that can be spent at farmers’ and other select vendors’ stalls. WIC customers can use seasonal coupons to buy fruits and vegetables directly from farmers. Senior Farmers Market customers can buy produce, honey, and herbs with check booklets distributed by the program.

Despite the increased opportunities to use SNAP benefits, many food assistance program participants say that they need to make their food dollars stretch, and shopping at Farmers Markets can be too expensive. That’s why many farmers markets are also offering a “bonus bucks” program that awards additional spending dollars to customers who spend their CalFresh benefits at the market.

The Alemany Farmers Market in San Francisco runs such a program and awards an additional $5 in purchasing power to customers that spend $10 of their CalFresh benefits at the market. In a press conference at the Alemany Market on June 4, 2011, Colleen Kavanagh, Executive Director of Campaign for Better Nutrition, announced, “We want healthy food to be affordable to all San Franciscans. The Bonus bucks program, combined with Alemany’s already competitive prices, makes this possible for people receiving CalFresh Food Stamp benefits.”

Not all of the programs aimed at helping low-income Americans buy fresh produce at farmers markets are government programs. Blue Cross Blue Shield in Minnesota helps fund a Market Bucks program at several farmers markets in that state. In the Market Bucks program, the first $5 spent in the market each day will earn the customer $5 in Market Bucks coupons. Their $5 becomes a $10 dollar value when spent on fresh produce at the market.

Bridgeport, Connecticut-based Wholesome Wave received a $600,000 grant from Kaiser Permanente to support the company’s Double Value Coupon Program, which allows SNAP participants to double the value of their grocery coupons when they buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets in 20 states. Wholesome Wave also will use part of the Kaiser Permanente grant to expand its Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, in which doctors give patients “prescription coupons” to redeem for fresh produce at farmers markets.

Wait. Prescriptions? Yes, you read it correctly. It’s the goal of Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program to bring fresh produce to at-risk consumers. Its mission is to fight childhood obesity in children of low-income families.

In the program, coupons amounting to a dollar a day for each member of a patients’ family are prescribed to promote healthy eating. There are doctors in several New England states, including Massachusetts, that are issuing these prescriptions for use at farmers markets.

So, the next time you’re shopping at your farmers market, remember that you’re doing something good for local sustainable food systems, and for your body. Eating fresh produce is so important, it’s becoming doctor’s orders.

Further reading on the topic of farmers markets and food deserts: