Help Us Save A Government Program That Works!


Ballard Farmers Market bustles in February 2011. Photo copyright 2011 by Zachary D. Lyons.



Imagine a program that not only helps feed low-income seniors and families with young children, but also educates them about how to choose a more nutritious diet. How about a program that encourages people to support local farmers by shopping at farmers markets? And what do you think about a federal plan that is designed to insert tax dollars back into local economies? One federal program accomplishes all of these: the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). But it has been eliminated at the state level in the Governor’s budget, and we need your help to restore it. Please, read on…

Federal/State Partnership Smart Use Of Scarce Tax Dollars

“I think this program is the best tax dollars spent. It gets the people to the best quality produce, at the lowest prices, with the knowledge that this is where the money is going,” wrote one farmer in a 2003 Senior FMNP survey conducted by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. “It supports small family farms, and it supports and creates community.”

There are two companion FMNP programs funded by the USDA, which also sets base rules for the programs. They are the WIC (Women, Infants & Children) FMNP and the Senior FMNP. USDA first launched WIC FMNP in 1989. WIC FMNP is designed as a companion to the larger Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which provides lower income families with young children with vouchers redeemable at approved retailers for certain types groceries defined as nutritional staples by USDA.  The much smaller WIC FMNP gives eligible WIC families checks that can be redeemed at their local farmers market for fresh produce purchased directly from local farmers. USDA launched the Senior FMNP, which helps low-income seniors, in 2000. While the larger WIC program is funded to the tune of billions of dollars nationally each year, the WIC & Senior FMNPs combined amount to less than $50 million nationally each year.

“[The Senior FMNP program] was great,” wrote one senior in response to the survey. “I was not eating nearly enough fruits and veggies because I couldn’t afford them. I feel healthier because of your help.”

In Washington, it works like this: Two state agencies manage the programs, the Department of Health (DOH) for WIC FMNP and the Department of Social & Health Services (DSHS) for Senior FMNP.  These agencies take the federal FMNP food dollars, convert them into checks redeemable only for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, and distribute these checks to their eligible WIC & Senior FMNP clients. WIC & Senior FMNP clients then give these checks to local family farmers at farmers markets in exchange for their produce. The farmer gets the full retail dollar. The FMNP client gets nutritious food direct from local farmers.

Cauliflower in every color from Growing Things Farm. Photo copyright 2011 by Zachary D. Lyons.

The Benefits Are Many

“While the program provides a little extra sales revenue for me,” wrote another farmer, “I particularly like that it helps mothers, children and seniors eat more fruits and vegetables than they might otherwise consume.”

The benefits to FMNP clients, markets and farmers do not stop there.

  • Clients get access to fresh produce that is usually only hours from its harvest.
  • Clients get exposed to varieties of fruits and vegetables that are simply not available at large grocery stores.
  • Clients often get recipes, storage tips and other information about the crops they purchase.
  • Farmers often give FMNP clients more produce than the value of their FMNP checks.
  • Year-after-year, survey data has shown that more than 90% of FMNP clients report spending more than their FMNP check allotment during their farmers market trips, and they say they will return in the future with cash.
  • FMNP also gives farmers and markets an opportunity to educate FMNP clients, many of whom are also enrolled in the federal food stamp program, that they can redeem those at farmers markets, too.

“I thoroughly appreciated the coupons as with diabetes and cancer I am supposed to eat a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, which I always have, but on a limited income is very hard to afford at times now that I am no longer able to grow my own garden,” one senior wrote.

“There were lovely peaches at the market,” wrote another senior. “I purchased several boxes and canned them. I have been eating them 2 or 3 times a week. They taste wonderful. I wouldn’t have gotten them without the coupons. Thanks.”

The program benefits farmers as well.

  • Farmers get appreciation for what they do.
  • Farmers get immediate access to funds, without having to wait for a wholesaler’s check to arrive months later.
  • Farmers get to feel like they are giving something back to the communities that support them.
  • Farmers get a break from the isolation of the farm to interact with the community and other farmers while at the farmers market.

“I have spoken with many people who make healthier food choices when they shop at the farmers market,” commented one farmer. “People often try new vegetables, and form better eating habits when the checks are specifically for fruits and vegetables. This is an excellent program. It provides opportunities for people to better their diets and the diets of their children. It also supports local agriculture, which is invaluable to the local economy.”

Farmers markets also get a healthy dose of diversity as well as expanded foot traffic and increased sales. And when seniors participate in FMNP, they get a healthy social excursion while experiencing a little bit of their old world, from the markets themselves and from buying the varieties of produce they remember from their youths, but that they cannot find in grocery stores.

“I got to have more fresh fruit and vegetables then if I bought them from my monthly [social security] checks, and … I got out and met some very nice people and enjoyed the trip,” commented one senior surveyed. “…I’m unable to walk. I use an Electric power chair, so I don’t get out as much as I used too, so I really enjoyed going to the Farmers Market”

“This program was great for our seniors, and many of the other community members remarked on the positive values it has,” wrote one market manager. “It was also great for the vendors to hear the senior life experiences. Many of our seniors have had farming experiences in their past.”

Heirloom tomatoes from Jerzy Boyz. Photo copyright 2011 by Zachary D. Lyons.

FMNP By The Numbers

While the FMNP is a simple concept, it is complicated on paper, and it has been a constant struggle to keep it funded. In 2011, WIC FMNP received only $19.96 million in federal funds to cover the entire U.S., with Senior FMNP funded at $20.6 million. In 2011, Washington State received $894,000 of those federal funds to support the WIC & Senior FMNPs. The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) contributed another $320,000. Yet this tiny government program provided benefits to about 76,000 WIC clients, and supported some 887 participating farms at 130 farmers markets in 38 counties statewide.

“A government program that works!!” one farmer summed up nicely. “Let’s expand it!”

A berry mix from Jessie's Berries. Photo copyright 2009 by Zachary D. Lyons.

Here’s The Problem

Given our current state budget crisis, advocates have already gone along with a $220,000, or almost 70%, cut in DOH funding for the FMNPs in last year’s budget, leaving just $100,000 in the budget from state coffers for the programs. We understand that everyone must accept some cuts. But state bureaucrats and legislators are considering cutting the remaining $100,000 from the state budget. This would be, quite simply, penny wise and pound foolish! You see, that remaining $100,000 in state funding is necessary in order to help pay for the state’s share administrative costs as required by USDA, and without it, Washington would release the $900,000 in federal funds. And given competition for scarce federal funds, Washington’s allotment would quickly be reallocated to another state, perhaps never to be made available to Washington again in the future, even if the state refunded its share of the program at a later date.

Who within the sound of my keyboard would, in their right minds, turn down an investment opportunity guaranteed to pay off a minimum 900% return, especially in this economy? Because that is exactly what state legislators would be doing here. And that does not even begin to take into account the fact that, according to recent studies, for every $100 spent at a farmers market, $62 is reinvested locally, and $99 stays in the state – money that continues to re-circulate, and thus get re-taxed, bringing more revenue in state coffers. Not to mention how many jobs it creates – as many as 600 farm jobs alone, by some measures.

Some in government think this program so small that no one will miss it. They are wrong. 76,000 Washington low-income residents would miss it.  887 Washington farms would miss it.  130 Washington farmers markets would miss it. And anyone who misses good, effective government spending will miss it.  Some 150 farms, markets, anti-hunger, social justice and faith organizations, and local businesses and community leaders have already signed onto a letter (download PDF) requesting that this great program be reinstated in the state budget. But we need your help, too. Every call, every letter and every email counts. Copy this article across the state. Blast it on your Facebook page, your Twitter feeds, your blogs and websites. Support a government program that, for a tiny investment in state funds, actually makes money for our state! In a word, duh!



By Zachary D. Lyons, Communications Director, Seattle Farmers Market Association

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