Vouchers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets increase the amount of produce in the diets of some families on welfare, according to a new paper in research in Food Policy which suggests that farmers market vouchers can be useful tools in improving access to healthy food.  Perhaps. Half of the people dropped out of the test even though they got more money to shop for produce at farmer's markets.

The analysis was designed to validates a new provision in the Agricultural Act of 2014 that seeks to get low-income families buying produce at farmers markets rather than supermarkets.

Poor families tend to go for calories rather than fruits and vegetables, supposedly because they either access to healthy food or have an inability to pay for it. Farmers markets would like to make their way into those "food deserts" and government subsidies and mandates would be the way to do it.

One in four farmers markets in the U.S. accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits - food stamps. In recent years, several local governments and nonprofit organizations have augmented federal food assistance by offering vouchers to use at farmers markets. The vouchers increase the value of food assistance when used to buy fruits and vegetables at markets, which means the farmers still get to charge what they want but the difference in cost is offset by taxpayers.

Food assistance programs don't dictate nutritional quality, the whole point of food stamps was to give people non-judgmental choices, but if food stamps can be used to buy ice cream and soda then given a choice some will do it. The farmers market subsidies can only be used on produce at farmer's markets.

To assess the effect of farmers market incentives on those receiving food assistance, Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, the paper's lead author,  and colleagues enrolled 281 poor women in their study, recruiting participants at five farmers markets in New York, San Diego and Boston. The women were all caring for young children and received federal food assistance through SNAP or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The researchers collected demographic information and surveyed the participants throughout the 12-16 week study to learn about their food shopping habits and fresh vegetable consumption. Each time participants shopped at the farmers market, they received up to $10 in vouchers to be used toward purchasing fruits and vegetables. The women matched the amount of the farmers market vouchers with cash or federal food benefits.

Though the food was basically free, retaining participants was a challenge, which means that despite claims, cost is not the reason people don't shop at farmer's markets. A total of 138 participants completed the study, which is consistent with retention rates for similar studies. Women who were older, visited food banks and had to travel farther were the most likely to drop out. But those who completed the study at least claimed they ate vegetables more frequently. Participants with low levels of education and those who consumed little fresh produce at the beginning of the study were the most likely to increase the amount of produce in their diets. 

"Our food choices are very complex, and issues with food security won't be solved with a single program," Dimitri said. "Even though not all participants increased their consumption of produce, our study suggests that nutrition incentives are a promising option that can help economically disadvantaged families eat healthier diets."

Farmers markets are fine but choosing them for a special subsidy doesn't seem to make sense if healthier food is the goal. They are usually open on limited days and are closed in the winter.