In 2001, two academics from the University of California at Los Angeles, and the executive director of the Public Health Foundation Enterprices WIC Program undertook a fascinating study – “Choices Made by Low-Income Women Provided with an Economic Supplement for Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Purchase” (Journal of the American Dietetic Association).
The nutritional problems driving their exploration were statistics that revealed the low fruit and vegetable intake among U.S. citizens as a whole; the stagnation (between 1989 and 2000) of fruit and vegetable servings per day among individuals over the age of two; and the lower consumption rates of fruits and vegetable rates among the less affluent and educated.
Their research design examined the later demographic, and a group of 602 low-income women in suburban Los Angeles enrolled to take part at several WIC offices. According to the study’s methodology, “The study sites (two intervention and one control) were selected based on similarity with regard to caseload, distribution of ethnic backgrounds of participants, and geographic proximity of supermarkets, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets.” The WIC sites were, for example, within walking distance of a farmers market . . . which they established as being no more than 1/2 mile away. Three-fourths of the 602 original participants completed the study from start to finish. No nutritional education was provided over the six month study.
The researchers collected data about each participant’s race, the types of vegetable purchased, the redemption rates (or the percent of vouchers – $10/wk – that were used).
Slightly more vouchers were requested for farmers markets ($44,960) than were for supermarkets ($44,000). Redemption rates were 90.7% and 87.5% for the farmers’ market and supermarkets, respectively – again higher for those who chose to spend vouchers at farmers markets. There was little difference in the total varieties of different fruits and vegetables between the two shopping locations. But one of the interesting findings was that “A larger number of item purchases were reported for the farmers’ market condition (29% more fruits and 25% more vegetables).”
And of the nearly 10% of dollars distributed that went unspent, participants who were interviewed explained that they still intended to put the rest of the money to good use before receiving the next voucher.
This last finding indicates the outstanding use for more fresh produce among this population. With the exception of two vegetables, the report found that all of the different types of vegetables were high in nutrients deemed important by the WIC program. Not only was this population of low-income women making efficient use of the economic supplement . . . they were channeling it into nutritional forms deemed a priority for this population. As the authors put it, “The very high redemption rates for coupons in this study lead us to conclude that a fresh produce subsidy would be approximately fully used, at least at levels up to that provided in this study.”
They close the article with this plan of action, or recommendation for professional dietitians:
“…Capitalize on the ability of WIC participants to choose fresh produce and can encourage them to include it not only in their own daily diets, but also in those of other family members.”
I believe this was a particularly innovative program because the intention was to provide the target population with a larger WIC voucher for fruits and vegetables than is currently being considered by policymakers. Currently women in suburban Los Angeles receive between $56.14 and $76.62 per month depending on breastfeeding status.
In this study, $40 in vouchers was distributed each month solely to be used for fresh fruit and vegetables. Although there was little reporting on how much of the produce purchased by vouchers was utilized, and how much spoiled before preparation, the researchers were able to push the bar upwards. They showed a target population that was not overwhelmed by good chow. Instead they searched it out, and took full (~90% between farmers market and supermarket sites) advantage of it!
And now, for a little fun: check out what happens when you surround good kids with a tribe of elders and a good food environment to grow up in!