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The Farmers’ Market Effect

Vouchers that permit low-income women to shop at a local farmers’ market increase fruit and vegetable consumption in poor families, a new study shows.

The research, published this month in the American Journal of Public Health, comes just as states are making important changes to national nutrition programs. For years, the federally-funded Women, Infants and Children (W.I.C.) program, which subsidizes food purchases for low-income women and young children, hasn’t included fruits and vegetables, except for fruit juice and carrots for breastfeeding women. After a push by health groups and a recent report from the Institute of Medicine, the United States Department of Agriculture in December revised W.I.C. to include monthly subsidies for fruits and vegetables. States will begin implementing the new rules in February.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles tracked the eating habits of 602 area women taking part in the federal W.I.C. program. Some of the women were given $10 in weekly vouchers for vegetable and fruit purchases at a nearby farmers’ market or supermarket, while a control group received coupons for non-food products in exchange for sharing information about eating habits.

After six months, women who shopped at the farmers’ markets were eating about three additional servings of fruits and vegetables a day, compared to the control group. Supermarket shoppers consumed 1.5 extra servings.

It’s not clear why mothers visiting a farmers’ market wound up buying more vegetables than grocery store shoppers, but some women told the researchers that the produce sold at markets seemed to be fresher and of higher quality than supermarket offerings. Many shoppers also said they enjoyed the pleasant community experience and the chance to interact directly with growers, the authors noted.

While this latest report shows that subsidizing fruit and vegetable purchases can make a big difference in eating habits among low-income people, it also suggests that the new amounts recently approved for W.I.C. fall far short of what is needed. The U.C.L.A. study gave women $10 a week, while the W.I.C. program will provide monthly vouchers worth $8 to each recipient and $6 to each child. Breastfeeding women will receive just $10 a month toward fruits and vegetables.


Publication date: 1/16/2008


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