JEFFERSON CITY — Women, infants and children in low-income families could soon have access to vouchers that can be exchanged for fresh produce at select farmers markets. Rep. Martha Stevens' bill, which proposed the program, received strong support Tuesday during a Children and Families Committee hearing.
Missouri currently participates in a similar program that provides vouchers for fresh produce from farmers markets to low-income seniors who are found to be at nutritional risk. HB1666 would help the state provide the same fresh produce vouchers to low-income pregnant and postpartum women and children younger than 5 who are considered to be at nutritional risk.
If the bill is passed, the state would apply for a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support the state’s use of the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Stevens, D-Columbia, said federal grant funds would cover 100% of food costs and 70% of the program’s administrative costs.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture would work alongside local agencies to identify eligible recipients and handle the program’s administrative aspects. The department would pilot the WIC program in the same areas where they currently run the seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program and would work with farmers who have already been authorized to participate in the program, Stevens said.
The senior pilot program operates in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield. The Columbia Farmers Market submitted testimony in support of the program, even though it is not in the current pilot.
"If locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables grown by our local farmers at our local farmers markets were able to accept WIC vouchers, we would see an increase in those small local economies," wrote Corrina Smith, executive director of Columbia's market.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, speaking on behalf of Empower Missouri, said the program provides important access to healthy foods and can also help reduce health care costs.
“Pregnant women have got to eat right, or these babies are born low birth weight and wind up in NICUs forever,” Oxford said. “So this is just a really, really good idea.”
No one testified against the bill, but Rep. Randy Pietzman, R-Troy, raised questions about whether programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which are already available, make it possible for women, infants and children to get fresh produce.
Oxford explained that though individuals eligible for the WIC fresh produce vouchers program might also be eligible for SNAP or TANF assistance, these programs alone are not enough to meet the needs of low-income families.
“The amount of your check is usually less than the cost of your housing, so there is no money left from your TANF check to really put toward food,” Oxford said. “If you’re on TANF, probably you do get SNAP. SNAP provides about $1.35 per person, per meal. So less than $5 per person per day to eat on. The USDA says it costs at least twice that to have an adequate amount of nutrition.”
She said the WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program would open the door for women and children who need it to get fresh produce.
The program would also benefit the authorized farmers who could accept the vouchers in exchange for produce, according to Scott Penman, who testified in support of the bill on behalf of Operation Food Search. Penman said the program would be an opportunity for Missourians to help feed other Missourians.
“The truth of the matter is, these folks are more than likely not current customers, so you’re increasing the overall customer base,” Penman said. “I think there’s a benefit for everyone.”
Four other organizations, the Missouri State Alliance of YMCAs, Missouri Nurses Association, KC Healthy Kids and the Missouri chapter of the National Association of Social Workers also expressed support for the bill.