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If You Give the Poor Fresh Vegetables, Will They Eat Them?

HuffingtonPost.com • Dec. 6, 2007

A brighter note sounded in the obesity epidemic battles this week: Federal Women, Infants and Children vouchers are being overhauled to include fresh fruits and vegetables. But does that mean folks will drop the white bread and American cheese for greens?

In a word: Yes.

Until now, this massive federal food program for low-income moms and kids has restricted purchases on its dime to specific meat, starch and dairy foods–mostly because it was designed 30 years ago, when such diets were considered the pinnacle of nutrition. But when New York State conducted a pilot study of the broader WIC vouchers last year, they got a startling success: People not only used their fruit and vegetable allotment, but when they did, they overwhelmingly chose fresh–not frozen or canned–vegetables.

That’s good news, but here’s some that’s even better: The new WIC allotments could create a sea change in the food stores located in poor communities. The corner shops that often constitute the sole food source for blocks in low-income neighborhoods typically don’t stock fresh produce. One reason is that it takes more time and skill to do it, but there’s also no obvious demand to compel owners to experiment. And the latter is where the WIC change is truly revolutionary.

Entire farmer’s markets in poor neighborhoods already subsist largely on food coupons from WIC that are only good at farm stands. By creating a similar stream of cash for corner stores, we could begin to see an array of fresh fruits and vegetables cropping up on their sales floors, too.

By creating a stream of funding in low-income neighborhoods dedicated specifically to fresh fruits and vegetables, the WIC folks are making it worth store owners’ while to make the leap to stocking more than just mealy apples and a box of onions.

Bodegas as healthy places? I’m not expecting my corner bodeguero to jettison the Haagen Dazs and HoHos, but if more people can afford to pay him for some tomatoes, avocadoes and greens–and actually cook real food from what he offers–it stands to reason I’ve got a better chance of seeing it.

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