Farmers market vouchers may improve access to healthy food

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[August 09, 2014]  By Shereen Lehman

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Vouchers for shopping at farmers markets can help families on food assistance programs consume more fruits and vegetables, new research shows.

“This is a great program to bring to local farmers markets, provided they are located in areas with many consumers that receive federal nutrition benefits,” Carolyn Dimitri, who led the study, told Reuters Health in an email.

Dimitri, a researcher with the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, added that this is an easy intervention for markets that are already accepting SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) or other federal nutrition benefits, and the payoff is high for the consumers who participate.

About one in four farmers markets currently accept SNAP, she and her colleagues noted in the journal Food Policy.

“Farmers markets can bring a spark of life into a community,” Dimitri said. “The vouchers have the potential to increase the viability of local farmers markets and consequently local communities.”

Low-income families tend to consume diets low in fruits and vegetables due to poor access to healthy food and their inability to pay for it, say the authors.

Although food assistance programs such as SNAP are helpful, they can be used to buy any type of food, including items that aren’t nutritious.

“The concept is appealing – give people more resources, and they will buy more fruits and vegetables,” Dimitri said.

Dimitri and her colleagues enrolled 281 economically disadvantaged women who shopped at five farmers markets in New York, San Diego and Boston. All of the women had children between the ages of two and 12.

The researchers collected demographic information and asked the participants questions about their food shopping habits and fresh vegetable consumption. The study lasted from 12 to 16 weeks, depending on how long the local farmers market season lasted.

Each time the women shopped at the farmers market, they received up to $10 in vouchers to be used for purchasing fruits and vegetables. The women matched the amount of the vouchers with their own cash or federal food benefits.

A total of 138 participants completed the study. Women who were older, visited food banks and lived in “food deserts” - neighborhoods with few healthy food sources - were most likely to drop out of the study.

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Of the women who completed the study, more than half said they ate vegetables more frequently at the end of the study.

Women with less education and those who consumed little fresh produce at the beginning of the study were the most likely to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diets.

“I think this study is exciting because it shows that for those with very low levels of fruit and vegetable consumption, these incentives seemed very promising,” Darcy Freedman told Reuters Health in a phone call.

Freedman is a researcher with the Prevention Research Center for Healthy Neighborhoods at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

“But I think also given the influx of federal support for nutrition incentive programs, this study raises important questions about strategies to make them most effective,” said Freedman, who wasn’t involved in the new research.

The 2014 Farm Bill includes a new program called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, which will provide incentives for people to use SNAP to buy more fruits and vegetables.

Freedman said that we need to get to the point where far more farmers markets accept these benefits.

“The first step is getting the farmers markets to accept SNAP, the second step is getting the (Farm Bill) incentive activated and then I think building on from there,” she said.

The study was funded in part by the nonprofit organization Wholesome Wave.

SOURCE: Food Policy, online July 26, 2014.

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