Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Policy Point Wednesday: Fresh Food and Access

Indiana University researchers are studying CSAs and Farmer's Markets.  Their small study found, not surprisingly, that these programs tend to attract higher-income customers who usually have access to healthier foods in other venues.
"Our findings suggest that the majority of FM {Farmer's Markets} participants are part of the privileged class, with smaller than proportionate numbers of minority persons accessing the venue (90.6% Caucasian). Additionally, FM participants had a higher than normal income level (36.6% above $75,000), as well as above normal level for education (62.2% bachelor's)."
Similar statistics hold true for CSAs (Community-Supported Agriculture, where buyers pay upfront for a share of the farm's produce.) I am sure that no one who reads this blog is shocked by these statistics.

The presenter of this study, professor James Farmer, suggested that markets accepting government food assistance plans can make a difference, while some CSAs increase accessibility by offering installment plans, work-exchange programs and sliding-scale fees.  For example, an increasing number of farmers' markets accept Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children vouchers and other government assistance for food alternatives. Meanwhile, some CSAs have incorporated payment installment plans and work-exchange programs, with a small number providing a sliding payment scale. Farmer also suggests that making farmer's markets physically accessible to minority and low-income neighborhoods is important.

One issue is sidestepped by this study: farmer's market prices are usually higher than grocery-store prices, in part because they cater to an affluent clientele who will pay more.  CSA prices are difficult to determine because the produce is priced by the season and not by the piece - understandably suspicious to people for whom a misstep in food budgeting can mean not eating. Organic Consumers notes several variables that make the cost of local fresh produce a challenging sell to low-income buyers:
  • "The cost of vegetables and fruit rose 120% between 1985 and 2000, while the price of junk like sodas and sweets went up less than 50% on average. (source 3)
  • Fresh food often doesn't provide as many calories per dollar as processed food.
  • Fresh food doesn't stay fresh as long as processed food. 
  • Fresh food requires more labor to make into appealing, satisfying meals than processed food."
Advocates often address these issues via charity, usually with dollar-matching of WIC or SNAP funds.  Recently, a local business district found a more direct way to connect farmer's market produce and lower-income customers: they brought the leftover produce from the farmer's market to a small corner store in an underserved area.  The store owner was able to sell the produce, local neighbors were able to buy it cheaply without leaving their neighborhood, and the farmers left the market with less waste.  Connecting the dots and closing the food gaps can sometimes be as simple as moving food from one place to another.

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