As a farmer, Paul Volckhausen wants the food he grows with his wife, Karen, on their Orland farm to reach as many people as possible.
Which is why for over a decade, Happy Town Farm has been authorized to accept the supplemental nutrition benefits offered to qualifying pregnant or breastfeeding women and children up to the age of five through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program.
“We want as many people as possible to eat our food,” Volkhausen said. “We want to make our produce as available to as many different classes of people, or different kinds of people, as we can. [Food programs like WIC offer] it to people who might not be able to afford it otherwise.”
On a monthly basis, about 19,000 women and children receive WIC benefits, according to Laura Hodgkins, the WIC Program Manager at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. WIC is a federal nutrition assistance program, though it is administered at the state level. The benefits come in the form of specific checks for specific food needs, covering a variety of products from produce to bread, that target specifically the needs of pregnant and postpartum mothers, as well as their young children.
In addition to the WIC checks mothers receive to purchase food at traditional grocery stores, there is a specific check that can be used to purchase unprocessed fruits, vegetables and herbs from authorized farmers. Happy Town Farm is one of about 170 farms in Maine that are currently authorized to accept this type of check.
These checks came into being nationally 25 years ago when the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program was established by Congress to increase the access WIC recipients had to fresh and local foods.
Data shows that there is an increasing need for nutrition programs like this in Maine. Presently, the state ranks 7th nationally in terms of food insecurity, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, rising two spots from 9th most food insecure state last year, and 12th the year before.
According to the new data, 16.4 percent of households in Maine are presently food insecure ― meaning that they do not have reliable access to nutritious food.
Despite these rates of food insecurity, only about 50 percent of the farmers’ market checks issued through WIC program are being redeemed, according to Tina Bernier, vendor coordinator for the WIC program in Maine. Bernier said this redemption rate has stayed fairly consistent in recent years. Additionally, these checks are only redeemable early summer through Oct. 31.
Leigh Hallett, director of the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, is hopeful that this program can grow, but higher redemption rates are needed for that to happen.
When the checks are issued in late June or early July, Bernier said recipients receive guidance on where they can be used and what they can use them for. But sometimes the ability of a recipient to access a market can be a barrier to utilizing the checks, given farmers markets often are only open on certain days and times each week.
“It takes an effort to get to a farmers’ market but it’s an effort we think is very worthwhile,” Bernier said.
Over the last year, the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets has been working to increase the incentive for WIC shoppers in Washington and Aroostook counties to make it to the markets by securing grant funding that allows for the benefits that shoppers redeem to be doubled. These two counties were selected because based on the rural nature of the areas, “people have to travel a lot [farther] and there are fewer choices,” Hallett said.
But across the state, Hallett said the organization is always working to increase the awareness of where WIC shoppers are able to redeem their benefits at farmers’ markets through signage.
Unlike food benefits provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which are redeemable at all of the vendors at participating farmers’ markets, WIC benefits may only be redeemed by farmers who have been authorized by the state to do so. To be authorized, a farmer must complete a one hour training on WIC benefits and what they can be redeemed for, which authorizes them to accept WIC for three years.
But aside from finding out which farmers in their area accept WIC and where they can purchase their produce, if a shopper hasn’t been to a farmers’ market before, they may be unsure how shopping there works.
“I think the other part is people are unsure of how to deal with a farmers’ market just because they’re used to going to the grocery store and buying things there,” Volckhausen said. “We just want to make it clear that we’re really happy to work with them and take the time to give them the best benefit they can.”
The farmer to customer interaction is a boon for any shopper at a farmers’ market but for WIC shoppers on a budget, this interaction with farmers can inform them on where they can get the best value in terms of product and preparation if they are unfamiliar.
While bringing fresh and local foods into the diets of those who need it is the root of the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, the community spirit that shoppers can enjoy in the market is an added plus, both Hodgkins and Hallett said.
Additionally, Hallett said, mothers who bring their children to the farmers’ market with them will help to introduce their children to locally grown food.
“A lot of [mothers] said their kids really enjoy going to the farmers market. Their kids can really develop an interest in local foods,” she said. “Like with anything, if the kids pick something out, they tend to be more inclined to eat it.”