Linking low-income consumers with farmers markets

Another interesting observation from my recent NY trip involved that state’s program linking low-income consumers with farmers markets:

The New York State Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides checks to low-income, nutritionally at-risk families enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Senior Nutrition Programs. The checks are redeemable for fresh fruits and vegetables at participating farmers’ markets. The purpose of the program is to promote improved nutrition through increased consumption of locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. It is also intended to expand sales at farmers’ markets. The Department collaborates with the New York State Department of Health, the New York State Office for the Aging, and Cornell Cooperative Extension in administering the program.

As it appeared at the markets I visited, qualified people receive paper checks that look like travellers checks and are marked “for use only for fresh produce at farmers markets” or something like that. Farmers I talked to seemed to think it was a good program.

Ideally, I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where the government didn’t need to prop up people’s budgets to afford decent food, where the overall food system didn’t shovel money into making it necessary for low-income people to need subsidies to buy fresh food. I’d prefer to live and farm in a world where decent food was a high priority in home budgets of any level, ahead of electronics and over-consumption. I’ll never understand why a population that happily shells out $4 for a hot dog and $6 for a beer at a baseball game complains that local farmers are gouging with their prices.

I’m also somewhat reluctant to back such proposals, because I fear that subsidizing anything leads to people taking it for granted. For example, I have very mixed feelings about programs that seek to get lots of donated food from farmers to give away to those in need. It’s hard to argue with the societal value of such things, but economically I’d rather have those folks as customers than dependants, and I worry that giveaways and subsidies encourage people not to value what they’re given at its true value. How many people grateful for a donated potato would scoff at the $4/lb I charge to make a decent income on growing it, because society and government taught them that food should be free or cheap at all costs?

That being said, we don’t live in that world right now, and it seems that the NY approach is a pretty good attempt to bridge the gap. It’s one of many ways states are experimenting with supporting low-income populations while also supporting local farmers (who often themselves could qualify for welfare based on their annual incomes). I remember seeing another type of program in either Maryland or Virginia while I was helping in a farm in the latter. As I recall, it involved doubling the value of food stamps when used at farmers markets, as a way to offset the perceived higher cost of fresh local food as compared to processed out-of-state food.

I do much prefer this kind of subsidy to other kinds, as rather than just giving money to people or businesses, it provides the support through actual economic activity. The farmer has to work to earn their part of the bargain, and the user has to make the effort to seek out the food. Far better than sending straight checks to either one.

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