Saturday was the last day this summer that WIC food vouchers were available at local farmers markets under an initiative to encourage low-income families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Spokane Regional Health District has been distributing the farmers market vouchers for about 10 years through its six Spokane-area offices, but this summer it again began the distribution at three markets – downtown, North Side and Millwood.
“It’s working great,” said Deanna Koczor, a health district dietitian. “We’re finding a higher usage of the checks when clients come to the markets.”
One day this summer, the health district distributed 75 percent of its allotted vouchers, the equivalent of $7,500 in WIC funding, at the Millwood Farmers Market in the hopes that the vouchers would be redeemed then and there.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children program typically distributes food packages of milk, cheese, cereal, peanut butter, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The farmers market vouchers, part of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program, pushes fresh fruits and vegetables.
Nationally, participation in WIC has declined despite continuing high unemployment, health district spokeswoman Kim Papich said.
The Spokane County Health District has seen a 4 percent decline, or a drop of 450 clients, in the past year.
Spokane County also has seen a $1 million decrease in WIC dollars spent at local grocery stores, from $9.8 million in 2009 to $8.8 million last year.
One possible explanation is a change in the Basic Food Program, which now benefits families living within 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
“Also, newly unemployed families might not be aware of programs like WIC,” Papich said.
In addition to food distribution, the program provides nutrition evaluation, education and counseling, as well as breast-feeding support. Qualifying single fathers also are eligible for WIC benefits.
In 2008, 14,129 Spokane County women qualified for WIC services based on income alone, according to the Washington State Population Survey, but only 41 percent received WIC services. That year 50,926 children younger than 5 qualified, but only 28 percent received services.
“There are a ton of people in Spokane that need WIC, but aren’t choosing to enroll,” Koczor said.