Communities: Benton County, OR; Omaha, NE.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is the nation’s most prominent anti-hunger program. In 2011, it helped almost 45 million low-income Americans to afford a food in a typical month. Nearly 75 percent of SNAP participants are in families with children, and more than one-quarter of participants are in households with seniors or people with disabilities.
The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) WIC serves low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women, and infants and children up to age 5 who are considered “at nutrition risk.” WIC participants receive checks or vouchers each month with which to purchase specific, nutritious foods to supplement their diets. The WIC program also provides nutrition education and referrals to health and social services at no charge.
A few state agencies distribute WIC foods through warehouses or delivery to the participants. Others offer the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which provides participants with coupons to be used to buy produce at farmers’ markets. In some states, SNAP and WIC are issued on electronic benefit cards, and these cards will be required of all states by 2020.
Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities partnerships are working on expanding where SNAP and WIC can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. One popular focus of this strategy is the use of farmers’ markets. Outfitting farmers’ markets with electronic benefit transfers (EBT) allows SNAP and WIC participants to use their electronic benefit card at markets. Markets can also be a good opportunity for nutrition education and cooking demonstrations.
While this improves access to markets, cost can still limit the availability of fresh produce to SNAP and WIC participants. Many markets remain more expensive than grocery stores, and often existing benefits are not enough to encourage people to shop at markets. One way markets are lowering cost barriers us by doubling customers’ EBT dollars through grants and donations.
Benton County, Oregon: Making Farmers’ Markets Accessible
Benton County was recently ranked the healthiest county in Oregon by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings. However, health disparities still exist. “Not everyone in Benton County has the same opportunities to be healthy,” says Megan Patton-Lopez, childhood obesity prevention coordinator with the HKHC partnership in Benton County. The town of Corvallis, where the HKHC partnership is based, has a high standard of living compared with other parts of Oregon, and many low-income people live outside of town with limited access to healthy food, active transportation, and safe recreational space. The rate of obesity in the county is 56%, and only 32% of the population consumes the recommended servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. The Benton County HKHC partnership seeks to ensure that everyone in the community has an equal opportunity to be healthy.
One way in which the HKHC partnership is achieving this goal is by establishing EBT access and expanding purchasing power of benefits at the local farmers’ market. In 2010,with a Healthy Eating and Active Living grant, the partnership launched the That’s My Farmer SNAP Incentive Program with local congregations and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO). That’s My Farmer was a pilot program to improve access to fresh fruits and vegetables among recipients of federal nutrition assistance. With a minimum purchase of six dollars, customers received an additional six dollars in SNAP Incentive tokens. For example, if a SNAP cardholder purchased $10 worth of tokens, the total amount of tokens that the customer could spend at the market was $16. During the pilot year, the Corvallis Farmers Market reported a 19.18% increased use of SNAP benefits. They are currently fundraising to offer the program again in 2012.
The partnership is also working to make the market accessible in other ways than financially. Latina women traditionally have the lowest rate of redeeming their WIC benefits, so the partnership is working on making the farmers’ market in Corvallis more accessible to this population. They are hosting musical groups to play traditional Mexican folk music. They will conduct tours of the market in Spanish, as well as cooking demonstrations also in Spanish. This year the state of Oregon was offered bonus funds for the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. In previous years the state has only had enough to offer WIC FMNP coupons to one out of every four eligible families. In 2012 every eligible family will be covered. It is expected that outreach with Latina WIC participants will result in more families shopping at the market.
In addition to trying to make the existing market more accessible, the HKHC partnership is also working to improve food security in low-income neighborhoods so that people do not have to leave their community to purchase healthy food. They are connecting with local Latino farmers to establish farm stands in the communities outside of Corvallis, which are home to many Latino immigrants. They will continue to work with these farmers to assist them in the process of accepting EBT benefits. “We’re trying to connect the dots between low-income and minority families and farmers,” says Patton-Lopez.
Omaha, Nebraska: A Pilot Program to Accept WIC at Farmers’ Markets
The HKHC Omaha partnership has opened the door for increasing access to fresh produce within identified high need areas in Douglas County, Nebraska. Before 2011, the state of Nebraska did not have the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP). In 2011, the HKHC partnership started a WIC FMNP pilot program with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services System and the Nebraska Department of Agriculture. A farmers’ market with seven vendors was created right outside of the WIC office in North Omaha. Two thousand WIC coupon packages were given out to WIC participants, each worth $30 in produce at the market, and 52% were used.
According to vendors, purchases by WIC clients varied from 61 – 100% of sales, depending on the vendor. The Charles Drew Farmers Market was specifically started as an opportunity for WIC FMNP recipients to utilize their coupons. This was a convenient location for not only WIC participants and Charles Drew employees but also neighborhood members, some utilizing their Senior FMNP coupons.
This year the partnership is distributing FMNP coupons at an additional WIC clinic in Omaha. This will allow for an increase in fresh produce accessibility and a greater percentage of coupons are expected to be used this year since they will be given out earlier in the season The WIC FMNP offers education for shoppers on what to buy, how to pick the right produce, and how to cook and preserve the produce. Even though the coupons were given out late in the season, the market was still very successful for vendors and shoppers.
The partnership evaluated the pilot program by surveying farmers and WIC participants about the challenges, barriers, and benefits of the program. The partnership is also currently mapping the location of vendors who accept WIC and who also sell fresh produce. This includes corner, grocery, and other retail stores. These maps will provide a visual representation of accessibility to healthy foods in Omaha.
Reflecting on the pilot program, Patty Falcone, community health educator with the HKHC partnership, says, “It was an exciting process. With everyone’s help, it came together really quickly and ultimately it was successful.”
A major challenge for farmers’ markets that seek to accept EBT or WIC or Senior’s Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program coupons is building the capacity of a farmers’ market to allow for this. HKHC sites are doing this through connecting market managers in their area or around the country who have successfully implanted access to these federal nutrition assistance programs.
HKHC sites are currently evaluating how federal nutrition assistance benefits are used at markets. This can help to understand who is using the market, what they use it for, and how it has affected their food choices. This information can be used going forward to promote the market and strategize how it can best serve federal nutrition assistance participants and address food insecurity.
Expanding the purchasing power of federal nutrition assistance benefits has proved to be a strong factor in lowering price barriers to farmers’ markets. Some HKHC sites are also working on lowering other linguistic or cultural barriers to the market. Offering services and cooking demonstrations in other languages help make the market a welcoming place for people who may not see the market as for them. In addition to bringing people to the market, expanding food access in communities that lack healthy options – and making sure they are outfitted to accept federal nutrition assistance benefits – is also an important piece of the food access puzzle.
(For more information on HKHC sites’ innovative strategies for utilizing farmers’ markets to address food insecurity and childhood obesity, see the case examples on farmers’ markets.)
Other HKHC sites working on federal nutrition assistance:
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (2012). Policy Basics: Introduction to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Retrieved from: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226
United States Department of Agriculture (2011). WIC: The Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Retrieved from: http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/WIC-Fact-Sheet.pdf