Fresh Food at Affordable Prices

How programs like Wholesome Wave are getting fresh food to all.
By Amy Vergin

In today’s society, it’s more common to wait in line for 15 minutes at a fast-food drive-thru than it is to take a walk to a nearby farmer’s market for fresh fruits and vegetables. American culture is obsessed with cheap and convenient foods instead of nutritious staples the body needs to run efficiently. Scarier still is that by 2020, statistics show that three out of four Americans will be overweight. The question is not just why do we act in such a self-destructive manner, but how do we end this epidemic?

Over time, poor eating habits develop from consistently choosing foods with a perceived convenience benefit, taking marketing health claims at face value, and stretching limited dollars by purchasing foods that are subsidized by manufacturer coupons or offer a low price. For these populations, basic nutrition education is often lacking—and too often the messages that do get communicated have been significantly affected by political posturing and agricultural-industry lobbying. Fortunately, more and more programs are evolving to ensure everyone has access to quality food at a price they can afford.

The Wave of the Future

The government created programs long ago to help struggling people afford food. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, was designed to provide financial assistance to Americans that live close to poverty level, and need extra money to afford groceries. SNAP recorded that over 45 million people, or 15 percent of the population, were participating in the program in 2011.

Why change the name of the initiative from the Food Stamp Program to SNAP? The 2008 farm bill included a deliberate effort to change the way poverty-level families view the program and buy food. It changed the name of the food-stamp program and implemented incentives encouraging families to buy healthier food. That is where Wholesome Wave steps in.

Wholesome Wave is a non-profit organization founded by Michael Batterberry, Gus Schumacher, and Michel Nischan. The organization dedicates itself to improving the cost of fresh, healthy, locally grown produce to historically undeserved communities. Wholesome Wave partners with farmers markets, community leaders, healthcare providers, like-minded nonprofits, and government entities to help implement their programs. Currently, Wholesome Wave has three different programs in 28 states and participates in over 400 farmer’s markets.

Getting Out of a Deep Hole

Another problem standing in the way of healthier communities are food deserts. When most people think of the term “desert,” they picture a dry, bleak, sandy place where very few things are able to sustain life. But the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes a desert as an “area of the country that lacks access to food needed for complete health.” The United States alone has over 13 million people living within a food desert. Urban cities around the country are at the peak of food-desert locations, even though they might have more access to farmer’s markets and organic grocery stores. Poor neighborhoods in these cities have nearly twice as many fast food restaurants and convenience stores as wealthier neighborhoods. Even the supermarkets in these neighborhoods are different. According to John Weidman with the Philadelphia-based Food Trust advocacy group “not all grocery stores are equal” in terms of quality of healthy food provided.

The key to fixing the problem is making healthy food affordable, but who can compete with dollar menus chock full of salty, sugary items? Wholesome Wave’s CEO, Michel Nischan, says, “The best way to do that [change eating habits] is to ensure communities are designed to make healthy food choices easy for everyone. The more communities place an importance on fresh, healthy, local food, the more we’ll see increased numbers of farmers markets and stores and restaurants selling locally grown fresh foods.”

Farmer’s markets increasingly continue to grow in popularity. With only 60 markets in the 1960s, there are now more than 7,000 nationwide. The foods sold here are healthier (usually organic and locally grown) which usually equals higher prices. But recent studies show that the net cost is not much more expensive than cheap junk food sold at the local grocery store or fast-food restaurants.

A study done by the USDA shows that when you compare the price of an item to its related calorie count, the higher calorie, cheap foods like pastries and sweets eventually become more expensive than the healthier foods. For example, a donut may have more calories and seem cheaper, but it won’t fill you up the way a lower calorie item, like a banana, will. You would ultimately end up spending more money by eating more donuts to fill up, rather than initially spending a little more on the original banana to satiate your appetite.

Wholesome Wave created a few programs poised to help make shopping at farmer’s markets more affordable for those living on a smaller budget. Wholesome Wave paves the way for programs such as the Healthy Food Commerce Initiative (HFCI), Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx), and the Double Value Coupon Program (DVCP).

The HFCI was launched in 2011 and was created to strengthen regional agriculture by catalyzing the development of regional food support. The project works to direct capital assistance to mission-driven food hubs. These hubs have a potential to be a viable business that will connect production in rural areas with urban demand. HFCI is designed to hopefully boost regional economic activity, increase farming incomes, and preserve farmland acreage.

The FVRx program is designed to help families that are at risk of developing obesity or diet-related conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Wholesome Wave conducted a study in 2010 to test this program, along with Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited (CAVU). Results showed that the program had a significant effect on the 246 participants, educating them on healthy eating and how to shop for nutritious products. Since then, Wholesome Wave expanded the program to eight other sites, including Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island.

The idea of the DVCP, according to Wholesome Wave, is to “provide consumers with incentives that match the value of their federal nutrition benefits when used to purchase fresh, local produce at participating farm-to-retail venues.” When consumers shop at farm-to-retail venues, such as farmer’s markets, the program matches the amount that is being spent through federal nutrition benefits. In the states that have accepted the DVCP, farmer’s market sales have significantly increased. In Rhode Island, there was a 600- percent increase in redemption rates and a 400-percent increase in Boston. DVCP sales amount to a fourth of the business that farmer’s markets now see. Altogether, 86 percent of the 1230 people that had coupons ended up consuming more foods that were sold at different farmer’s markets. 90 percent actually made a change in their shopping habits.

Working Together

In order for Wholesome Wave to continue their work in the communities, partners are needed. Nishcan says, “The funding Wholesome Wave provides its partners to help them increase the value of federal food benefits dollars is privately raised through individual donations, foundations, and companies. We also provide technical support for our partners by helping them apply for local, state, and federal grant funding.” Nischan continues, “The proposed $20 million incentives funding in the Senate Ag Committee’s approved farm bill markup, would most likely be available only through matching grants. Wholesome Wave and other non-profits may be able to apply to distribute these funds to markets and other organizations.”

Corporations show support for Wholesome Wave’s push to provide access to local fruits and vegetables. Whole Foods Market, Stonyfield, and Kashi are just a few of the several companies that make an impact in the Wave movement. Other foundations and partners have stepped forward to see this project through in hopes of healthier communities in the future.

Kashi, in particular, has started a program on its own, known as the REAL Project, which aims to reduce the deficit of real food in communities. Natural food and lifestyle expert Keegan Sheridan says Kashi is trying to promote “organizations working to keep real food in the minds and hands of communities throughout the country, like Wholesome Wave, which has great programs that improve access and affordability of fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce to historically underserved communities.”

As the project continues, others are joining in the push for healthy, affordable foods. Almost 30 states have adopted at least one of the three programs that Wholesome Wave has developed, and more continue to follow. The 2012 farm bill recently just passed a new version that gives SNAP $100 million for the incentive programs it’s a part of, such as Wholesome Wave and other similar projects. This will help reinvigorate the program and its participants, and provide more opportunities for future American farmers.

How To Afford Good Food

With almost 7,000 farmer’s markets all over the country, there is a good chance one is nearby. In New York alone, there are over 600 markets. Arizona has around 80, California has over 700, and Minnesota has at least 200. Finding a market should be a mouse-click away. Websites like localharvest.org and ams.usda.go/farmersmarkets will help you narrow down your search to your surrounding area, and give you a better chance of filling up your tummies with healthy foods instead of super-processed grub.

If eating healthy seems financially troubling, look into the SNAP program, fns.usda.gov/snap/, and wholesomewave.org to learn more about ways that they can help out.

Have a green thumb? Try starting a garden, either in your own backyard, or in a community garden where people work together to affordably grow fresh foods. More communities are raising money to create areas where people can participate in cooperative gardens, especially in areas that may be considered a “food desert.”

Remember, whether you qualify for SNAP, or are just looking to find affordable, healthy food, there are multiple organizations that can help you and your family. Say goodbye to greasy grits and fatty patties, and say hello to a healthier you.