On a sweltering afternoon in June, Tania Bond ventures into the Historic Brookland Farmers’ Market, a small collection of white tents on a grassy triangle between the neighborhood’s Metro station, its parking lot, and the Michigan Avenue overpass. The 18-year-old expectant mother, dressed in tight black shorts and a black T-shirt that reveals the curve of her belly, clutches a brochure and six $5 checks for use at the market. She got them earlier that day at her local Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinic, along with a quick tutorial on how to use them.
Bond stands in the middle of the market to get her bearings and to catch her breath, having just walked a mile in the humidity, from her house near Providence Hospital. Bond consults her brochure, a buyer’s guide put out by the District’s Department of Health that lists the approved foods and the dates of their availability. She bites her lip as she studies it.
Bond is a new participant in the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), a little-known program run by the federal Department of Agriculture and local WIC clinics. All women receiving WIC benefits are automatically eligible for the program, which is in its 11th year in D.C. Last year, out of 26,013 District WIC participants, approximately 16,888 received FMNP checks. Currently, the checks are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, which explains the gap. But D.C. is in the process of automating the check distribution, so that by 2006 every eligible woman will be able to receive the checks anytime during the market season.
For the market season, stretching from May to November, participants like Bond receive $30 in FMNP checks. Thirty dollars is hardly enough to cover the cost of fresh produce for seven months, but the FMNP isn’t intended to do that. Instead, it tries to encourage a behavioral change—eating more local fresh fruits and vegetables—in the hope that once a woman’s checks run out, she’ll keep coming back to the markets. But as well-intentioned as the program is, it overestimates its ability to change eating habits and remains naive to the logistical challenges the markets present.
Bond wants to eat healthy, but her first visit to the market is disappointing. Many of the foods listed as in season on the buyer’s guide are nowhere to be found. “When you come, going by what this guideline is telling you, and it’s not here, you’re like, Do I want to come next time, or will I just experience the same thing?” says Bond. “With Safeway, I know milk, juice, eggs, cereal are going to be there. That’s a known fact. At the market, you don’t know, and you can’t call to find out.”
Indeed, none of the market phone numbers are given in the buyer’s guide, though they are readily available on the Internet, and Brookland’s market hours for Tuesday aren’t even listed. Then there’s the $30 maximum. The first time Bond saw an FMNP check was a year ago, when she found one lying on the sidewalk. It doesn’t surprise her that checks sometimes go to waste. “I don’t think $30 is enough,” she says. “If this is all you’re going to receive all year, and you want to get three servings [of fruits and vegetables] a day, it isn’t enough.”
Bond is apparently not alone in her frustration. Even though D.C.’s FMNP program is one of the most successful in the country, last year, more than 4,000 WIC participants did not redeem any of their vouchers. Last year, D.C. returned $126,000, or one-third of its federal grant, to the government, money that could have been used by low-income mothers and children. “A lot of young women don’t cook or do a lot of preparation with fruits and vegetables,” explains Gloria Clark, a Department of Health program manager.
Another deterrent, according to Clark, is transportation. There are 18 farmers’ markets in the District, from Dupont Circle to Anacostia, with 29 vendors who accept FMNP checks. These markets aren’t always convenient for participants, for whom a trip often involves schlepping long distances with bags in one hand and children in the other. Bond says that if she tried to spread out her purchases over a number of weeks by using, say, just $5 each visit, she could be paying almost as much for transportation as for groceries.
After some deliberation, Bond finally settles on a $3.50 pint of strawberries. The woman running the stand reminds her that change isn’t given for FMNP checks, and would she like to pick something else to round out her purchase? Bond looks at some snap peas and cabbage, and reluctantly chooses a head of cabbage for a dollar.
Having to spend a whole $5, even when there isn’t $5 worth of produce that Bond wants, is another frustration. “If he has something and she has something, I can’t split the check,” says Bond, pointing to two different farmers. “I don’t really like cabbage, but I made an exception because I didn’t want [the check] to go to waste.”
It doesn’t help that many markets have only one or two FMNP-accepting vendors, further hampering selection. But even a market that requires every single one of its farmers to take the checks doesn’t attract the customers it should. The Anacostia Farmers’ Market, held every Wednesday, averages only about 100 customers each week. Though FMNP checks make up half of the market’s receipts, the low volume of sales means that the Capital Area Food Bank, which runs the market, must subsidize the farmers. And this despite the fact that the more than 70,000 District residents in Ward 8 have just one supermarket, a Safeway, from which to buy fruits and vegetables.
The solution to the lack of fruits and vegetables in the diets of WIC recipients and communities may have nothing to do with farmers’ markets at all. In April, the Institute of Medicine released a report recommending significant changes to the basic WIC package, which has remained largely unchanged for over 30 years, to bring it in line with current dietary science. Whereas the only fruits and vegetables available in the current package are fruit juices and carrots, the proposed package includes monthly cash vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables from regular old supermarkets.
August Schumacher, a Clinton-administration undersecretary of agriculture who was a principle architect of the FMNP, views the integration of fresh produce into the basic WIC package as the way to make a real difference. He says that if just 10 percent of the total WIC budget went toward fresh fruits and vegetables, the impact would be significantly greater than that of the farmers’-market program. “You’d really begin to see a major influence on nutrition in low-income women and children,” says Schumacher.
Back at Brookland, Bond rests at a picnic table in the shade before heading back home. Her purchases, strawberries and the cabbage in separate bags, sit on the table. “I really had my heart set on peaches and a big watermelon,” she says. “I’d have caught the bus home for that.”
“I can see why these people wouldn’t be mad, though,” says Bond of the other shoppers, who include a fit woman in a moisture-wicking running outfit pushing a jogging stroller and another accessorizing her pleated skirt with iPod earphones. “They probably just came because they wanted to. I don’t think they’re looking for anything, really.”
Not having to look for anything is a luxury that Bond can only wish for. She gets up to leave, taking her strawberries but leaving her cabbage behind. A market volunteer shouts that she forgot something, and Bond returns with a sheepish smile. “See?” she says. “It doesn’t even want to go home with me.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Robert Meganck.