Farmers market vouchers may help low-income families eat healthier

Giving low-income families vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables at farmers markets could increase their consumption of these healthy foods, according to a new study.

Low-income families tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. In addition to not having adequate access to healthy foods, cost is also an issue. Farmers market vouchers could help address both of these obstacles, the researchers noted.

“In terms of healthy food options, farmers market incentives may be able to bring a low-income person onto the same playing field as those with greater means,” study author Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, said in a university news release.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (previously known as food stamps) are accepted at one in four farmers markets in the United States. The researchers pointed out these benefits normally can be used to buy any type of food, including ice cream or soda.

Some local governments and nonprofit organizations, however, have started offering vouchers that low-income families can use at farmers markets. Unlike SNAP benefits, these vouchers can only be used to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result, the study authors suggest, they are more likely to result in healthier diets.

Although farmers markets can help low-income families gain better access to fresh produce, they can’t be the sole source of healthy foods because they are not open every day and closed in winter, the authors added.

The current study involved nearly 300 low-income women with young children from New York, San Diego, and Boston. All of the women were receiving SNAP benefits from the government or other food assistance through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

Every time the women shopped at a farmers market, they received up to $10 in vouchers that could be used to buy fruits and vegetables. The women matched the farmers market vouchers with cash or federal food benefits.

Only 138 women completed the study. The women who were most likely to drop out were older, visited food banks, or lived in areas that lacked access to fresh, healthy foods, the researchers noted.

More than half of the women who completed the study, however, said they ate vegetables more often. The women with less education or those who ate only small amounts of fresh produce when the study began, were the most likely to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet, the investigators found.

“Our food choices are very complex, and issues with food security won’t be solved with a single program,” Dimitri noted. “Even though not all participants increased their consumption of produce, our study suggests that nutrition incentives are a promising option that can help economically disadvantaged families eat healthier diets.”

The study findings were published online July 24 in Food Policy.

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