It is National Farmers Market Week, which celebrates the value that farmers markets bring to communities across the country. WIC has had a long-term partnership with farmers markets, which help make fresh, local produce accessible to participants at over 2,400 farmers markets across the country in 2020. The WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides vouchers for WIC participants to purchase fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, roadside stands, and directly with farmers. FMNP was founded in 1992 and is currently offered in 49 states, 6 Indian Tribal Organizations (ITO’S), and Puerto Rico. The program has been a win-win for supporting local farmers and enhancing access to and consumption of fruits and vegetables among WIC participants.
Participants who redeem FMNP vouchers report a myriad of benefits, including increased access to and purchasing of fruits and vegetables. FNMP can also introduce participants to farmers markets; a study of WIC participants in Wisconsin found that 60% of new WIC participants visited a market for the first time because of FMNP. In neighborhoods with limited access to fruits and vegetables, FMNP can be a catalyst for the creation or support of markets to serve WIC (and SNAP) participants.
Despite the benefits of FMNP for those who redeem them, there are many barriers to redemption, and many participants do not redeem their FMNP benefits. These barriers include awareness of the program, stigma associated with spending benefits, and the capping of benefits at $30 per participant per season. Paper vouchers increase the stigma of using FMNP benefits at markets, as they are often time-consuming methods of payment and not as discreet as cash or debit cards. The use of paper coupons can also be a difficult transaction process for farmers due to the additional labor of stamping and depositing checks.
One promising strategy to overcome the barriers of paper vouchers is the transition to electronic payments for FMNP. New Mexico WIC became the first state to transition to electronic payment options in 2021. As part of a proof of concept, WIC participants could either receive electronic cards with their benefit preloaded, similar to a debit card, or they could download an app on a smartphone. Farmers were prepared accept payment of the card through a mobile app, creating a seamless transaction. New Mexico documented the first online transaction at the Santa Fe Railyards Farmers Market:
The usability of the EBT card received positive feedback both from WIC participants and farmers alike, who stated that EBT reduced the logistical hassle of paper checks and more privacy offered when purchasing using WIC.
In 2022, New Mexico is implementing the electronic solutions statewide. Veronica Greigo, Manager of New Mexico’s Farmers Market Program, explained the effect the transition had on participant experience:
Another new adopter of the EBT system was Chickasaw Nation, an Indian Tribal Organization (ITO) located in Oklahoma, which provides WIC services to tribal residents. Chicksaw Nation launched their EBT system in 2022, serving approximately 2,700 WIC participants. Katrina Lewis, Senior Manager of the Chickasaw Nation WIC, has stated “The Chickasaw Nation WIC participants have been very excited about the transition to EBT. The EBT QR codes are easy and convenient to use. Over 100 farmers are now accepting EBT throughout the Chickasaw Nation. The farmers have been very open to the transition and agree that EBT is a quicker and easier way to process Farmers Market payments.”, further displaying how the implementation of EBT methods has improved transactions for all WIC participants.
In addition to State Agency-led innovations, Congress has taken steps to modernize and enhance WIC FMNP. In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan Act approved $390 million in modernization funding that allowed for USDA to provide State Agencies with funding to transition from paper vouchers to electronic transactions at farmers markets. Establishing electronic transactions is an important step in both increasing FMNP redemptions and unlocking WIC benefit transactions - especially for the Cash Value Benefit (CVB) for vegetables and fruits - for farmers, farmers markets, and farm stands.
In addition, Congress has explored efforts to modernize WIC FMNP program administration in Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR). Last month, the House Education and Labor Committee advanced the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act, comprehensive legislation that included several program improvements for WIC FMNP - including lifting the $30 cap on annual FMNP benefits and eliminating the state-match requirement. These changes will enable more states and more farmers market to participate in WIC FMNP and bolster the purchasing power of WIC FMNP participants.
In celebration of National Farmers' Market Week, use our action alert and toolkit to raise your voice and tell Congress to pass CNR into law.