Picture the typical farmers’ markets customer and you’ll probably see a highly educated yuppie in a North Face jacket sorting through rutabaga and organic chard, handing over wads of cash in exchange for locally grown produce.
But what if it were easier for low-income families to shop alongside the yuppies? That’s what Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist at New York University, wanted to know. “The concept is appealing—give people more resources and they will buy more fruits and vegetables," Dimitri says. "But we wondered if people receiving the incentives were actually buying and eating more fruits and vegetables.”
To find out, Dimitri and her colleagues gave 281 low-income mothers of children between two and 12 years old coded vouchers to use at farmers’ markets—the codes were so the researchers could track their use. Each time the participants went to the farmers’ market and filled out Dimitri’s survey, they got cash. The questionnaire asked about the women’s shopping habits, whether they had visited a food bank recently, and how many fresh vegetables they ate.
Disadvantaged families may eat fewer vegetables not because of preferences or education but because of access.
The researchers chose women in three cities—New York, Boston, and San Diego—and tracked them for six months. Though only 138 of the original 281 participants stuck around for the full study (those who dropped out were older or live where healthy food is hard to come by), respondents reported that the incentives did indeed help them eat more vegetables.
Perhaps even more promising, the study found that the most at-risk women—those who hadn’t graduated high school and those who didn’t eat much produce—had the biggest increase in vegetable consumption after getting financial incentives.
"Prior to analyzing the data,” Dimitri says, “I thought the people who would benefit the most would be the participants with higher levels of education but that was not the case.” This suggests that disadvantaged families may eat fewer vegetables not because of preferences or education but because of access. Beyond access, there are also other compelling arguments to be made about economic scarcity and its psychological effects.
One of the study’s limiting factors is that farmers’ market managers helped recruit participants, so lots of the women surveyed were already farmers’ market devotees and therefore more likely to be interested in eating produce. The researchers suggest this only bolsters their argument about targeting low-income farmers’ market shoppers with these types of incentives.
Another concern is that access to farmers’ markets is limited, even for those who can readily afford their high prices: They happen only seasonally, on limited hours on certain days of the week. And just 25 percent of farmers’ markets in the United States accept food stamps.
“Given that fiscal budgets are tight, we thought it was important to understand the effectiveness of nutrition incentives,” Dimitri says. “Our findings suggest that many, but not all, participants in nutrition incentive programs will benefit. That is a very good starting point for a new policy.”
Rosie Spinks contributed reporting.