When participants in a local Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program received vouchers for fruits and vegetables at area farmers markets, they ate a greater variety of vegetables and more often chose fruits or vegetables as snacks. But a survey comparing prices at grocery stores and farmers markets showed that better produce prices could be found in local supermarkets, says a new University of Illinois study.
“The biggest effect the vouchers had was related to the quality of participants’ diets. Those who used the farmers market vouchers ate a greater variety of vegetables and were more likely to choose fruits or vegetables as snacks (57.3 percent),” said Karen Chapman-Novakofski, a U of I professor of nutrition.
In the study, 377 participants from the WIC Clinic in Champaign, Illinois, were surveyed on their dietary intake and habits. Meanwhile, prices were collected every two weeks at area grocery stores and farmers markets.
The median intake for both vegetables and fruit among study participants was two servings a day. Almost 70 percent did not meet the national recommendation for amount of vegetables eaten daily, and about 25 percent did not eat the recommended amount of fruit.
USDA uses farmers market vouchers nationwide to allow WIC mothers to purchase more vegetables than they could otherwise afford. About half the participating mothers received vouchers for farmers markets; the other half did not. Fifty-seven percent of participants who used the vouchers had never shopped at a farmers market before.
“Growing and selling fruits and vegetables locally is a vital exposure and access point for clients who have challenges with accessing and consuming enough fruits and vegetables,” said Brandon Meline, director of maternal and child health at the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
The WIC farmers market voucher program has been important in giving many residents the possibility of increasing their intake variety, Meline added. Participants received vouchers worth an average of $6 total, not enough to have a significant impact on the amount vegetable intake. For instance, the average cost per pound for green beans is $3.23, and a pound provides about three cups of vegetables.
“Indirectly, however, the vouchers may have contributed to the mother’s choice to serve vegetables, what types of vegetables will be served, and maintaining a positive attitude about eating them," Chapman-Novakofski noted. "The farmers market vouchers may serve as a gateway to exposure to more fruits and vegetables, and clients would use other sources of food dollars to maintain fruit and vegetable intake."
So is the WIC farmers market voucher program a success? And should it be continued? The jury’s still out, said Chapman-Novakofski.
“Farmers markets are a good place to find fresh, appealing produce, and they provide a venue for cooking demonstrations and nutrition education, but economically disadvantaged moms need to be able to purchase produce at the best prices,” she noted.
At the very least, the study provides food for thought and may influence public policy in the future, she said.