Magazine article The Nation's Health

Farmers Markets Bring Healthy Choices to Low-Income Shoppers

Magazine article The Nation's Health

Farmers Markets Bring Healthy Choices to Low-Income Shoppers

Article excerpt

FARMERS MARKETS fill many roles in U.S. communities: They serve as a neighborhood hub, put farmers face-to-face with consumers and connect shoppers with fresh locally, grown produce.

Over the past six years, many markets have also played another larger role: providing fruits and vegetables to low-income Americans via the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

And many markets are going the extra mile to give such consumers more bang for their bucks.

Run through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Services, SNAP is a nutrition assistance program through which low-income families can receive benefits. Those benefits can be used to purchase food at SNAP-authorized retailers, such as grocery stores and farmers markets.

Farmers market participation in SNAP is not completely new, said Kevin Concannon, MSW, under secretary for USDA's Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. Farmers markets have been able to participate for more than a decade, but USDA has zeroed in on outreach to farmers markets and partnership organizations in recent years as a vehicle for healthy eating. By the end of fiscal year 2014, there were more than 5,170 U.S. farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers authorized to process SNAP benefits, compared with about 850 in fiscal year 2008, Concannon said.

"We are very interested in doing what we can to promote greater access to healthier foods," Concannon told The Nation's Health. "Farmers market food is typically less processed food, locally grown most of the time and fresh, and the markets provide a way of connecting our SNAP consumers to those fruits and vegetables --items all Americans can use more of."

Nutritionist Peggy Zamore, RD, knows how little produce Americans consume. Zamore, of Danbury, Connecticut, runs the Danbury Farmers Market Better Health Through Better Food Project, which not only accepts SNAP benefits but also matches the first $9 spent in SNAP benefits at the market.

The weekly market preceded the project, which began in 2010 to bring equitable access to fresh local food to low-income areas of Danbury, she said.

"I saw this as a way to not just tell people how to eat, but give them the resources to eat the right food, to follow good nutrition advice and provide them with the resources to do that," Zamore told The Nation's Health.

Zamore said the feedback on using the SNAP benefits, along with the incentive to get even more produce, has been positive. From 2013 to 2014, there was a 60 percent increase in the number of SNAP participants who received the $9 incentive--from 246 to 398 participants. Prior to that, there was a significant increase from 2012 to 2013--from 110 to 246 participants.

"One thing I learned very quickly by doing this is people who are typically thought of as wanting to want junk food don't want to eat junk food," Zamore said. "They want to eat fresh produce and they're thrilled when they can afford to buy it."

Honoring SNAP benefits and spreading the word is not without its challenges. Working the equipment needed to process SNAP benefits is one of them. As there are typically no electrical outlets at a farmers market, a wireless machine is needed to process the electronic benefit transfer cards SNAP customers use to redeem their benefits.

"When the USDA went to an EBT system for SNAP, that created a big problem ... for redemption of benefits at farmers markets because before that they had paper," Zamore said. …

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