Farmers markets often have the reputation of being only for those with plenty to spare. Ten urban farmers markets are working to turn things around and serve the underserved — low-income pregnant women, new mothers and children under the age of 5. In this week’s story, a visit to South King County farmers markets helps explain their secret.
Click on the audio player above or here to listen.
Narration: This summer an experiment is happening at select farmer’s markets. Can the state’s agricultural bounty be shared with those who need it most – low income pregnant women, new mothers and children under the age of five? “She loves berries of all kinds” Alisha Zumwalt, her toddler Elena, and Grandma check out what’s in season at a farmer’s market in Federal Way. Blueberries, raspberries, corn on the cob. “Probably four should be good. You want to get some cherries, too? Definitely greenbeans.” In June Alisha moved in with her parents to save money after her husband was deployed to Iraq. They’d been stationed in Kansas. “They didn’t have anything like this in Kansas. They didn’t have the farmers market program. So when we got here and I was told about it I was really excited to hear about that.”
The program she’s excited about is WIC or supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. In this case WIC coupons designed for local farmers markets. “Two dollars for that, too. Two easy. Even easier than the grocery store.” Alisha gets $20 to use at participating farmers markets for the season. “The $20, it's a big deal and the dollar is going to go a lot farther here.” The Federal Way farmers market, Des Moines, and other south King County farmers markets, as well as markets in Columbia City, Georgetown, and Madrona are part of a roll-out program with Seattle/King County Public Health, King County Agriculture, and the state WIC program. South King County residents, on average, have high health disparity and low income. “This is part of the county where there is the highest incidence of chronic disease and obesity,” says Karen Kinney with the King County Agriculture Program. “And this project is all about increasing the ability of the neighbors to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Funding for the program received a boost when Seattle/King County Public Health was awarded federal stimulus dollars from the Centers for Disease Control. The grant, Communities Putting Prevention To Work, was awarded in 2010. Since then the county has partnered with the state to adapt the monthly WIC fruit and vegetable checks for farmers markets. Kinney says the state is very motivated to expand the program statewide. “The state is getting its systems changed. We’re training farmers and we’ve got a great group of farmers signed up that are now hanging special signs at their stalls so they can take these $6 and $10 checks from the clients.”
The goal, says Kinney, is to bring farmers markets into the 21st century so they can accept EBT cards or electronic benefit transfer cards used for Basic Food benefits and WIC coupons. Britney Boyer with Tonnemaker Orchards is one of the participating farmers at the Des Moines Farmers Market. “It’s really nice that they have these machines and then they can provide tokens. We have our own personal machines but most vendors don’t..” Since most people use credit expanding it to all income levels has given sales a boost. "Yeah it’s increasing our customer base. It’s better for the whole market in general. It’s probably one of the best things we’ve done. We’re trying to get one for cell phones now, so like the iPhone.” Kamal Sidhu, a 20-something farmer whose farming roots go back generations in India says his family’s farm has benefited greatly from serving WIC clients. “We’d heard from other farmers that it was a difficult program but as soon as we started taking it, it doubled our sales.” Over 15 years ago Kamal’s father bought land to develop in Puyullap. But when his mother and sisters found blueberries growing on the land they decided to sell them at a farmer’s market. The family has been selling berries ever since.
The looming question is whether Sidhu Farm and others will be able to increase sales and health outcomes for more WIC clients, the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and children. The federal stimulus grant runs out in October. With Congress signing debt deals that include cutting one trillion from domestic agencies, the program’s future is uncertain. Janet Charles is Director of Nutrition Services with the state Department of Health. “When we do an annual report for the wic program we brag about how many grocery dollars we’ve brought into communities and how many have gone to farmers and grocers, because we believe that’s an extra benefit for our community to have not only these healthy kids but also have that economic piece that we contribute.” While the other Washington may not be listening, it isn’t stopping the state farmer’s market association. Farmer’s Market week is being celebrated through Saturday (Aug. 13) in communities from Des Moines to Chewelah.