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Food Stamps For Heirloom Tomatoes? Diet Effects Of Farmers Market Vouchers Studied

(Lindsay_NYC/Flickr via Compfight)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

Heirloom tomatoes for three dollars a pound. A four-dollar bunch of purple and yellow carrots. Well-heeled women stopping for local produce on their way to Whole Foods and the neighborhood juice bar.

That’s what comes to mind when I think of a farmers market. Bargain buys for low-income families? Not so much. But according to a new study, published in the journal Food Policy, vouchers for farmers market produce might improve the diets of low-income families—well, at least for those who go there anyway.

“Farmers market vouchers are a way to place all consumers on the same playing field,” says Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at NYU and the study’s lead author.

Low-income families often receive federal food assistance from two government programs: Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. While these programs help ensure access to food, they do not guarantee its nutritional quality. In fact, most food assistance funds can be spent on anything, from potato chips to ice cream.

In general, low-income families don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, often because they live in “food deserts” where options are limited. Some local governments and non-profits are aiming to increase these families’ access to fresh produce by offering vouchers—which are basically coupons—to use at farmers markets.

This year’s landmark Farm Bill created the first federal program to provide nutritional incentives in farmers markets and maybe even grocery stores. Before the program is implemented, this study’s investigators were interested in seeing if the incentives actually work.

The New York University researchers recruited 281 women from five farmers markets in New York, San Diego and Boston—one market in Lynn and the other at Copley. The women, who were already receiving federal food assistance, were offered up to $10 in produce vouchers every time they shopped at the market. Continue reading