At the Prime Time Nutrition store in El Monte, a store that stocks the foods provided monthly to recipients of a federal mother-and-child nutrition program, shoppers can pick up formula and cereal, cheese and bread and other basic groceries. This summer, they also can take home peaches from Sweet Home Ranch in Dinuba.
In Salinas, there's a farmers market in the parking lot outside the offices of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, known as WIC. And in Nevada County in the Sacramento area, a grant helps pay for WIC clients to take part in a community-supported agriculture program that provides them with weekly boxes of farm-fresh produce.
In the less than two years since WIC added fresh fruits and vegetables to the list of foods available for purchase with monthly vouchers — a move heralded as a major improvement — projects have sprung up around the state to try to make that food as local as possible.
"The idea is to make the healthy choice the easy choice," says Yelena Zeltser, who was staffing an information table at the Prime Time store in El Monte one recent morning.
The store sells avocados — $2 for a bag of five or six small ones — from McDaniel Farm in Fallbrook as well as the peaches from Paul and Ruth Buxman's Sweet Home Ranch.
Occidental College in Eagle Rock has helped establish a connection between farmers and several stores, including Prime Time, that stock only products approved for WIC shoppers. As seasons change, other farms will provide apples and tangerines, says Zeltser, manager of the Farm to WIC project that's run by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental.
"It's just perfect," J.R. McDaniel, an owner of McDaniel Farm, says. "Everyone likes to buy food from close to home."
Customers who stop at Zeltser's table on their way out can taste the fruit of the season and take recipes and other information. For children, there are stickers and a farmer card that mimics a baseball card with such statistics as the size of the farm and the animals that live on it.
The farm produce "is good for the community and for the kids," says Mike Tapia, shopping with his wife and 3-year-old daughter. His wife, Jessica, says she doesn't know of any farmers markets near their home. She says she'll try the recipes on the handout.
"It's good and healthy for your kids," says Christine Alvarez, who was shopping with her 4-year-old son, George Gonzalez. "Fresh always has more vitamins."
"I think it's a good way to help the community, first, and the price is better than if they're coming from far away, from another country," says Alma Martinez, district manager of this Prime Time store and eight others.
Martinez says her habits have changed too. "Now I look for local produce."
Farmers in Ojai had been discarding or donating the tiniest of their Pixie tangerines — those too small for markets, says Tony Thacher, one of 40 farmers in the Ojai Pixie Growers Assn. But once the produce vouchers, coupons that can be used only for fruits and vegetables, came into use, the farmers started selling Pixies for what it cost to pick them to WIC-only stores — about 40,000 pounds last season.
"It's been very successful from our point of view," he says. "And somebody on the other end got some pretty good fruit at a kid-friendly size."
So-called WIC-only stores are private businesses that stock exclusively the items allowed for purchase under the WIC program, including frozen, canned and fresh produce, as well as baby formula, dairy products, tofu, bread, cereal, peanut butter, beans and other basics. WIC recipients — 7 million people in California — can buy those products elsewhere, including at supermarkets, but Martinez says people like shopping in a place where there's no stigma and where all the products are on their lists.
WIC is available to pregnant women, mothers and children under 5 based on income; in California, a two-person household cannot make more than $27,214 gross per year. For a four-person household, the limit is $41,348.
This summer, Occidental began a marketing program aimed at getting WIC families to eat more locally grown produce and to teach them about the farmers who provide it.
This is just one of many efforts to connect low-income people to farm-fresh produce through schools and other institutions. Occidental has been instrumental in farm-to-school programs, and Zeltser says she hopes farm-to-WIC projects also will spread.
WIC has had a small Farmers Market Nutrition Program in place since 1992, providing vouchers to California participants that are worth $20 at farmers markets for the summer. But many people couldn't get to a farmers market, so vouchers went unused, said Laurie True, executive director of the California WIC Assn.
As of Oct. 1, 2009, WIC added monthly cash-value vouchers to use for produce — $8 for a pregnant woman and mother of a child under 5, $6 for a child. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, made the changes to bring the program better in line with government dietary guidelines and help fight obesity. Among WIC's services is nutrition education. (WIC coupons for most items specify an amount of food — how many gallons of milk, say. The produce items are issued by dollar amount.)
"I really think it's been transformational for WIC families," says Shannon Whaley, a WIC official in Irwindale who has conducted published studies showing that promoting good eating habits through WIC in the months before the produce was included and afterward actually got people to eat more fruits and vegetables.
The Monterey County WIC has a small parking lot farmers market for its clients — and anyone else. It ran for several years as a summer produce program, but now it will be open year-round, says Edie Wiltsee, the county WIC director.
The learning curve has been steep, she says. Shoppers sometimes think the market is just for WIC clients, and farmers had to be trained in how to accept the WIC vouchers and how to market their food.
That training needs to happen all over the state, but WIC officials and others say it's just a matter of time. Farmers only stand to gain, True says, adding that the summer farmers market vouchers amounted to about $500,000 a year in California, but the year-round program in the state totals $80 million.
"As we tell farmers, they're really going to like this because it's year-round, permanent and more families are getting it. And then they say, 'Tell me what I need to do,'" True says.
Shoppers too are learning, Wiltsee says. They have to consider the virtues of buying from a farmer and those of buying from a supermarket — which can offer some very low prices.
"People are poor; times are hard," she says. "But if you buy here, the money goes directly to the farmer, and it was probably picked the day before. You might consider that a value."