What do soy milk, Honey Bunches of Oats, grape juice and Wonder bread have in common?
They’re all listed among the Women Infants Children (WIC) Program’s allowable foods list. WIC, a federal program whose mission is, “To safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care,” provides supplemental nutrition assistance to over nine million US women1, infants and young children; yet, despite its stated goal, many of the food choices available to WIC participants lack the vital nutrients they ought to provide to those at nutritional risk.
Honey Bunches of Oats, Life cereal and grape juice might fill bellies, it does very little to provide real nutrition to the very people who need it the most.
Moreover, many deeply nutritive foods are simply disallowed. Want organic milk? Think again. What about organic vegetables? Or fresh whole grain breads? Nope. Only Orowheat, Pepperidge Farms, Country Hearth, Sara Lee and Wonder breads make the cut. Juice can’t be purchased in glass containers (plastic containers and canned varieties are fine – the bisphenol A is a bonus). You can purchase peanut butter but not almonds (a source of vitamin E) and if you’re hoping to avoid genetically modified foods, you’re completely out of luck for the purchase of organic items – save fresh bananas – is off limits. And once your kid hits the age of two, they’re cut off from full-fat milk though multiple studies indicate children, especially at such a critical time, need fat for brain development2.
While Honey Bunches of Oats, Life cereal and grape juice might fill bellies, it does very little to provide real nutrition to the very people who need it the most. The program excludes valuable, nutrient-dense foods such as meat, liver, butter, yogurt and similar foods – meaning that recipients are encouraged to fill up on juices, low-fat conventional milk and prepackaged cereals.
Clearly, a better solution is needed.
Farmers Market Nutrition Program
In many states, WIC recipients may receive an added benefit: vouchers to use at their local farmers markets; however my state is one of the very few that does not participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. That is, low-income Colorado women and their young children are at an added disadvantage by comparison to the WIC recipients residing in other states. While the program usually only provides between $10 and $30 per recipient for an entire market season – a pittance, really – it is something as it enables women, infants and children determined to be at nutritional risk to access wholesome, freshly picked and locally available produce.
A Community-building Solution
Colorado is not among the many states and state agencies to participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program; however, this created an opportunity for our community to solve a local problem by supporting the nutritional needs of those living, working and raising children locally. Our local farmers market, without relying on federal, state or local funds or even grants from private foundations, developed and implemented its own supplemental nutrition assistance program to provide wholesome, nutrient-dense foods to WIC recipients within our community.
Through our local program, WIC recipients could purchase farm fresh, raw milk from grass-fed cows, grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables and other wholesome, unrefined foods teeming with natural vitamins and minerals – foods they would not, otherwise, have access to.
Funded through the markets own, quite limited budget and augmented by fundraising within the broader community, our market provided between $80 and $100 in vouchers for every WIC recipient within a twenty-mile radius. Moreover, the recipients of those vouchers were able to purchase fruits, vegetables, meats, milks, cheeses and fresh herbs as they saw fit – without the limitations imposed by the federal program. Because our market requires growers to be certified Organic or Certified Naturally Grown, every item purchased at the market by WIC recipients met or exceeded organically grown criteria, thus ensuring that when WIC recipients and others in our community chose to consume goods from the market they could do so without fear of consuming foods loaded with chemically based pesticides, fungicides and other agricultural inputs.
Sure, having worked extensively with our county’s WIC coordinator, our market chose to limit some of the items for which WIC vouchers could be redeemed. For example, recipients couldn’t purchase most value-added items (excluding fresh cheese) such as breads, jams, jellies, pastries or concessions with their vouchers, but they could purchase farm fresh, raw milk from grass-fed cows, grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables and other wholesome, unrefined foods teeming with natural vitamins and minerals.
The program, piloted last summer in Crested Butte, succeeded in many ways: for low-income families, for farmers and for the market. Making the choice not to rely on external funding sources, our market held full control ensuring that should we wish to allow recipients to use market vouchers to pay for farm fresh milk through cow share agreements or grass-fed meats, they could.
Our growers benefited – reaching a new customer base that they’d been unable to successfully tap prior to the incentive of market vouchers. Local mothers and their children benefited by improved access to nutrient dense foods they could not otherwise afford and would not be able to access through the traditional supplemental nutrition assistance channels offered by the federally-funded WIC program. Most of all, the community benefited as the responsibility to support the nutritional needs of low-income residents rested upon the shoulders of every resident, thus inspiring families not needing nutritional assistance to financially support the program for their those families who did need assistance.
Action Belongs in Communities
Rather than wait for governmental programs to find and solve a need – and, perhaps, to do so inadequately. It’s up to individual communities to develop and enact solutions that address localized issues. The success of the Crested Butte Farmers Market WIC-to-Market program illustrates that such solutions, wisely enacted, can benefit local businesses, individuals and the community at large.
1. WIC Fact Sheet (accessed March 22nd, 2010). 2. Infants, Toddlers Should Not Restrict Fat Intake. Science Daily. February 1998.