When the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, switched over to an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system at the start of the decade its usage at farmers markets, whose booths have little access to electricity and whose members cannot easily afford wireless technology, was threatened with extinction. In 2005, however, New York City installed centralized EBT terminals at markets where SNAP recipients could transfer funds into $1 or $5 tokens, and by 2007, SNAP money spent at farmers markets skyrocketed to $40,000, from a meager $1,000 two years prior.
But not all SNAP-related food aid programs at farmers markets have similar success stories. Take the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), a federal food aid administered by states that covers just over a half million infants, children aged one through four, and pregnant and postpartum women in the New York. Despite initial promising results from new policies, its usage at farmers markets is still plagued with inefficiencies, red tape, and reluctant vendors.
Produce? Yes. Potatoes? No.
In 2006, New York State began experimenting with $5 vouchers for fruits and vegetables for local residents using WIC. The experiment was so successful that three years later, on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the federal government revamped the entire WIC program, requiring whole grain and low-fat milk in its food packages and expanding its almost nonexistent produce options with monthly Fruit and Vegetable (F&V) vouchers, set at $10 for mothers and $8 per child. Unlike SNAP, these food packages and vouchers, which adhere to specific UDSA guidelines on product restrictions and monthly allowances, strictly dictate what WIC recipients can purchase with their funds.
The change, the first major revision to WIC since its inception in 1974, had profound results for New York city children. A study of the eating habits and obesity rates of over 500,000 local children up to four years of age noted a marked rise in their daily consumption of fruits vegetables and whole grains, and a drop in the number of obese and overweight kids after the implementation of the new guidelines. Throughout the U.S., obesity in children aged two to five plummeted 43 percent over the past decade—a trend attributed, among other factors, to the recent WIC changes.
Though WIC only accounted for $6.4 billion of the federal government’s total 2013 food aid expenditures—vastly dwarfed by the almost $80 billion spent on SNAP— its impact is vast. A study by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service examining WIC eligibility found that over half of all infants in the country, and around 44 percent of children aged one to four, were born into families with incomes below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, the threshold for WIC eligibly. Though all these families are not on WIC, WIC currently serves over half of all infants born in the U.S.
The recent WIC changes, however, have not been without controversy, especially over one of the few food items F&V vouchers cannot purchase: white potatoes. While the 2006 changes to WIC allowed for the purchase of sweet potatoes and yams, the Institute of Medicine found that low-income children ate more starchy vegetables than recommended by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. Most of the excess came in the form of white potatoes, a staple that made up around 40 percent of the children’s daily vegetable consumption.
The exclusion of white potatoes brought on a wave of lobbying from firms representing potato farmers aiming to roll back the restrictions, including the National Potato Council, which spent the same amount on lobbying in 2013 alone as it did from of all 2009 to 2012. Senators from potato-growing states, including New York, support rescinding the ban, and both House and Senate appropriation committees included language to reinstate the white potato in WIC food packages in their spending bills.
Defenders of the WIC change, which include the Obama administration, worry about putting politics ahead of nutrition, and are hesitant to approve any change before a USDA review of the revamped WIC program is released in 2015. They are skeptical of politicizing the WIC by allowing Congress, for the first time ever, to legislate food inclusion, instead of the USDA.
Restrictions limit local success
The resistance to the white potatoes ban is also complicating the lives of New Yorkers on WIC—local farmers are slow to sign on as WIC Fruit and Vegetable Vendors, in no small part due to opposition to its food restrictions.
A 2013 report by Citizen's Committee for Children of New York, which surveyed 35 farmers representing over 200 New York City farmers-market booths, concluded that only a limited number of farmers accepted WIC F&V checks, with half of respondents calling the restriction of white potatoes a significant barrier to their participation as a WIC vendor. A third of respondents said the same about the WIC's prohibition on purchasing herbs and spices. Others questioned the health benefits of such restrictions, and noted the unfair burden on some local groups, like the local African and Caribbean communities, whom regularly use the banned items in their ethnic cuisine.
By the end of 2010, the report found, WIC participants redeemed only $13,000 out of a total $33 million F&V checks allocated by the state at farmers markets operated by GrowNYCs Greenmarkets, one of the largest farmers market organizations in the city.
A different approach
While WIC participants may use their F&V checks at the many WIC vendor stores in New York City—which must stock all approved food items—the barriers to using WIC vouchers at farmers markets is cruelly ironic given the success of the separate Farmers Market Nutrition program (FMNP).
Started in 1992, FMNP subsidizes WIC participants and senior citizens with income under certain thresholds to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables at outdoor markets. In New York state, WIC recipients receive an FMNP annual allotment of $24 in six checks for use only during the harvest season, which runs June 1st to November 30th.