New WIC Rules May Benefit Farmers’ Markets
Comments Due by November 6th
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued the long awaited proposed regulations to improve the nutritional value of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages. The proposed regulations, based on a report by the Institute of Medicine, promote food choices for WIC recipients (over 8 million nationally) that are healthier and more sensitive to the cultural needs of the program’s diverse client base. In general, they reduce the amount of dairy, egg, and fruit juice products that WIC recipients may purchase with their vouchers and, for the first time, add a substantial portion of fruits and vegetables to the overall food packages.
The proposed regulations also offer exciting news for local food advocates and farmers’ markets. In addition to adding almost $500 million per year in fruit and vegetable buying power to WIC food packages, they allow the produce to be purchased at farmers’ markets. This is the first time that farmers’ markets will be eligible vendors for the use of regular – as distinct from the special Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program – WIC food vouchers. While it is impossible to know how much additional farmers’ market sales the new regulations may generate, reasonable estimates put that number at as much as $75 million per year (states with year round markets, like California, would generate proportionally more sales than states with seasonal markets).
Based on the proposed regulations, this is how the new food package would work. Women and children between 2 and 5 years old would receive special paper vouchers or coupons that can only be used to purchase fruits and vegetables at WIC eligible retail food vendors. Women would receive $8 per month and each eligible child would receive $6. Though the regulations state a preference for fresh fruits and vegetables, they would also allow the purchase of frozen and canned fruits and vegetables (with restrictions on added sweeteners, etc.). These special fruit and vegetable vouchers could then be redeemed at eligible WIC vendors, which typically include supermarkets, small food stores (provided they have a sufficient selection of WIC-eligible foods), and, for the first time, farmers’ markets.
There are a few other points of note. Farmers’ market would have to be authorized as eligible vendors (we are encouraging the use of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program authorization procedures in those states that operate FMNPs). The paper vouchers or coupons would be issued in small denominations, probably $2. Like the current FMNP, farmers could not give change for sales that are less than the full denomination amount (they are of course encouraged to “top off” the sale if they wish). And, perhaps most importantly to farmers’ market advocates, there is no intention on the part of USDA to eliminate, downgrade, or alter the current WIC (or Senior) Farmers Market Nutrition Program. In fact, the FMNP will help local and state WIC offices and recipients redeem the new fruit and vegetable coupons in tandem with their FMNP coupons.
We recognize that there is considerable concern among farmers’ market folks that the new WIC fruit and vegetable program will eclipse or force out the FMNP. While there is a need to maintain constant vigilance – as there always has been – at the state and federal levels to protect the FMNP, WIC officials in Washington have expressed strong support for the FMNP. Indeed, we see the proposed regulations as an enormous opportunity to substantially expand the value of farmers’ markets to lower income, nutritionally at-risk families while significantly increasing the sales at farmers’ markets. For instance, if the new rules are implemented in ways that are consistent with existing state FMNP guidelines and practices, the FMNP could increase the value of the new program to both WIC recipients and farmers.
While it is expected that the proposed regulations will be implemented next year more or less as they are currently written, there is a lot that must be done to ensure that the new program is “farmers’ market friendly.” To that end we are asking as many people and organizations as possible to send comment letters to the national WIC office by the due date, which is November 6th. These letters should indicate your overall support for the proposed regulations, especially the provision that allows farmers’ markets as eligible WIC vendors. In addition, we’d ask you to add a few specific points that will enable farmers’ market to gain the maximum benefit from the new fruit and vegetable vouchers. Not only should letters concisely address the following points, we would also encourage you to provide local or state details that you feel illustrate the value of farmers’ markets to WIC and other nutritionally at-risk groups as well as the potential value of the new program to both farmers’ markets and WIC families.
Specifically, we’d ask you to concisely make these points in your own words:
· “Do no harm” to the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program. Do not reduce FMNP funding or establish procedures that would adversely affect its operation or effectiveness.
· Strongly support the proposed regulations, especially the provision that makes farmers’ markets eligible WIC vendors.
· Where states or tribes currently operate WIC FMNPs, encourage state and tribal agencies to coordinate the implementation and coordination of the new fruit and vegetable program with the WIC FMNP.
· State that you want farmers’ markets to be allowed to participate as seasonal vendors, to be exempt from the “WIC-only” cost containment requirements, and not be required to carry a full-range of WIC food package products.
· State that there should be no limit placed on the type of fresh fruits and vegetables that may be purchased with the new fruit and vegetable coupons.
There are a number of other more specific points that the Community Food Security Coalition has made in a formal comment letter that we have attached for your reference. You need not provide as much detail or attempt to be as comprehensive. But feel free to provide as much additional comment as you wish provided that you at least include the preceding points. You may view the entire proposed WIC food packages regulations at:
http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/lawsandregulations/foodpkganprm.txt or http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic/lawsandregulations/foodpkganprmpdf.pdf
All letters must be sent to the following person and address by November 6, 2006 at the very latest:
Patricia Daniels, Director
Supplemental Food Programs Division
Food and Nutrition Service
United States Department of Agriculture
3101 Park Center Drive, Room 528
Alexandria, Virginia 22303
You must reference your letter after the greeting in the following way: REF Docket ID Number 0584-AD77-WIC Food Package Rule
It is very important to generate a large number of comment letters to ensure that the new regulations are as favorable as possible to farmers’ markets.
If you have questions please contact Mark Winne at or Stephanie Larson at .
Thank you for taking action on this request.