Sarah Leach is used to eating canned fruits and vegetables — when she can get them. But for the first time last weekend, the pregnant 15-year-old from Congress Heights traveled to a farmers market to pick fresh peaches, plums and corn straight from wooden crates.
The Prince George’s County Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food assistance program was at the Ward 8 farmers market on Mississippi Avenue SE distributing $20 bonus vouchers to Leach and other clients, a once-a-year event.
On top of that, the farmers market was handing out bonus bucks for every dollar the clients spent, up to $25. By the end of Leach’s shopping trip, she had spent nearly $50 and had decided to return as frequently as possible to buy healthier food for herself and her baby.
“It’s like you’re getting your money back and you can get more,” Leach said of the bonus bucks.
Leach and other area residents on food assistance programs who do not always have access to fresh, locally grown produce are exactly the people the Ward 8 farmers market hopes to keep reaching.
Only 32 percent of Ward 8 residents consume fruits and vegetables, one of the lowest rates of all the wards, according to a 2010 report on obesity by the District’s Department of Health. Last year, the market started a partnership with the Wholesome Wave Foundation, which helps bring healthy food into underserved neighborhoods, allowing customers using vouchers to double the value of their purchases for up to $25 every Saturday.
Since earlier this year, Maryland food assistance users in programs such as WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been allowed to use their vouchers at any farmers markets in Maryland and the District. Clients in the District enjoy similar benefits. Virginia does not have a program.
Michael Segal, executive director for the Ward 8 farmers market, said that he and the farmers have seen more Maryland area customers coming with their vouchers and that along with the bonus-dollars program, “sales are unusually high.” The market has a free shuttle program to help customers get to the parking lot at THEARC, where the market is held.
Last year, nearly 30 percent of sales at the market came through food assistance programs such as WIC and SNAP, accounting for more than $20,000 worth of food. Sales are up from a year ago.
“We had an interesting challenge before with having no supermarket, but then a nice Giant opened up with a produce section, and that was a tremendous help for food access. But it’s far from solving all food access problems,” Segal said.
Problems accessing fresh, healthy food have translated into other problems for Ward 8 residents. The obesity rate is almost 42 percent, the diabetes rate 18 percent and the hypertension rate almost 41 percent, according to the city’s 2010 obesity report. The ward’s mean income is $25,017, with one in three residents living below the poverty line.
Angelo Young, a community developer assistant for the Prince George’s County WIC program, was sitting at the organization’s table last weekend during the farmers market, giving out the bonus vouchers for clients to use right away. He said that some of their clients are still unaware they can use their regular vouchers year-round at farmers markets in the District and that WIC is working to spread the word.
“We’re trying to get the clients to buy fruits and vegetables as it’s much more healthier for them,” Young said. “This opportunity when . . . you can pick your vouchers and food up at the same time . . . it’s convenient for the client and for us.”
Elizabeth Jackson, a Prince George’s County resident, was visiting the farmers market for the first time in two years. She was picking up food for her pregnant daughter, a client in the WIC program. She had bags stocked with peaches, nectarines, corn, cantaloupe, cabbage and watermelon.
Her husband approached her with a bowl of stir-fried vegetables from one of the booths and had her try some of it. She was impressed with how good it tasted and noted that they were all vegetables they had seen around the market. Though the family usually eats canned fruits and vegetables, Jackson said you can’t beat the market’s fresh selection.
“Everyone needs to be able to receive good fruits and vegetables,” she said. “It gives you a chance to try different things.”