A wealth of local produce is now available to more New Mexicans, thanks to an innovative initiative that kicks off this month, the W.I.C. Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
The program, also known by the acronym FMNP, helps low-income families purchase produce at growers’ markets across the state. FMNP aids the nutritional status of those who need it most, while benefiting local farmers at the same time.
“It’s really a win–win situation,” says Denise Miller, director of the New Mexico Farmer’s Marketing Association. “Federal money is distributed to low-income mothers, and then that money goes right into the pockets of the farmers.”
Last year, $300,060 was distributed to New Mexican farmers through FMNP.
The Farmers Market Nutrition Program is an ancillary project of Women, Infants and Children (W.I.C.), the federal agency that supplies mothers and their children with healthy foods, nutrition education and referrals to healthcare. Fresh fruits and vegetables are not among the foods usually allotted to W.I.C. participants. But, through the FMNP, checks are issued from July through October for produce purchase.
New evidence appears every day supporting the connection between health and fruit and vegetable consumption. Most people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and people living closer to the poverty line eat even less. The higher rates of cancer and diabetes among the poor are often linked to inadequate consumption of these foods.
Farmers markets (also called growers’ markets) are some of the best places you can acquire fruits and vegetables. Miller describes local market offerings as the “freshest and best tasting produce around. They’re usually picked by the growers and sold within 24 hours.”
Marina Palma is one of the tens of thousands of New Mexicans making use of the FMNP benefit to improve her own health and the health of her children. She is a W.I.C. client and mother of five. Palma thinks highly of the Farmers Market benefit. She used the checks last year and looks forward to using them again this year.
After attending a W.I.C. nutrition class with two of her daughters, Palma cataloged some of the health benefits provided by fruits and vegetables. She was pleased with the opportunity to add more of these foods to her diet, saying, “The kind of support they’re giving us is good. These checks are helpful for us to get the fruits and vegetables we need to get those vitamins.”
Numbers of W.I.C. clients taking advantage of the Farmers Market benefit varies wildly across the state. Las Cruces has one of the highest rates of check redemption at almost 92 percent. Dulce, N.M., is at the bottom of the spectrum at 14 percent. Here in Albuquerque, only about 50 percent of farmers market checks are actually spent.
Albert Ibarra, the FMNP manager, hopes to see higher numbers this year.
The variety in use of the farmers market checks has to do with client education and program promotion, Miller says. “A lot people are not familiar with cooking with fresh fruits and vegetables. They only learned to cook with a microwave. That’s where nutrition education plays an important role. And what really makes a difference is how active the individual W.I.C. offices are in promoting the farmers market.”
Unrelated to the check redemption rates, the FMNP has lately suffered a roller coaster with funding. Funds were slashed this year by the federal government by more than $100,000, or about 29 percent. Last year, checks were distributed to mothers and each individual child. This year, only one check per family will be issued. However, just last week, an additional $65,000 was redistributed to FMNP.
Denise Miller laments the reduced funding. “It’s really a shame the federal government is cutting programs like this,” she says.
Each month, W.I.C. provides services to over 64,000 mothers and children in New Mexico. And, of the all the services provided, the Farmers Market Nutrition Program is one of the most beneficial. As Soledad Raycraft, a nutritionist at the federal agency, says, “It’s some of the best help [we can] offer.”