Food assistance programs across state expand healthy food options for low-income families
When a patient visits the Toppenish Medical-Dental Clinic for a checkup, medical assistants check the patient’s weight. Then their blood pressure. And their heartbeat.
And then they ask the patient two important questions.
One: within the past 12 months, were they worried whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more?
And two: within the past 12 months, did they run out of food too fast and did they not have the money to buy more?
Many times, the answer is ‘yes.’
At the Toppenish clinic, registered dietitian nutritionist Lissette Llamas said many patients tell the medical assistant they don’t have enough food. That’s when the assistant sends them to Llamas or a community health worker. After a discussion about their situation, patients may leave the clinic with a fruit and vegetable prescription, otherwise known as a voucher. They can redeem the paper voucher just like cash at specific places in the community.
“I’ve seen it be a huge help,” Llamas said. “Families love the program and they get excited to come back and tell me about it. I ask them what they purchased, what they prepared with the food, and a lot of the families try new fruits and vegetables because of it. We’ve even seen some of them improve their lab results after eating more fruits and vegetables.”
The Washington State Department of Health provides participating clinics with these fruit and vegetable prescriptions. Two other similar programs — Fresh Bucks and Complete Eats — match fruit and vegetable incentive purchases from people who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits at participating grocery stores and farmers markets.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture grant funded these programs. But there were so popular that the funds for one of the programs — which was meant to last two years — ran out in one year. To make sure low-income families could still have access to fresh produce, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill this year that creates a statewide Fruit and Vegetable Incentive Program, modeled after the former grant.
The DOH, Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and the Office of Financial Management worked to make the Fruit and Vegetable Incentive Program permanent.
“Food insecurity isn’t just about lack of food — it’s also lack of fresh, non-processed food. We all have a stake in helping more Washingtonians access healthier choices so we can all be healthier at work, at home and at school,” Inslee said. “I appreciate the partnership of our many agencies, health providers and grocers to ensure fruits and vegetables are an affordable option for more families.”
The Toppenish Medical-Dental Clinic is part of Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic. When Llamas talks to patients there, she said it’s common for them to bring up food insecurity on their own. Most of them are Spanish-speaking women with children. They tell her they don’t buy fruits and vegetables because doing so is too expensive or they can’t afford it. After a conversation about their situation, Llamas introduces them to the incentive program, gives them a voucher based on the family size, and schedules follow ups for every two weeks.
The Toppenish clinic sees so much food insecurity that Llamas said they even opened an emergency food pantry at that location to bolster their efforts.
Community health workers or dietitians are the main people who issue the $10 vouchers. In the Toppenish community, Safeway is the largest grocery store in town that accepts the vouchers.
More than 90 farmers markets across the state offer another incentive program, Fresh Bucks, to SNAP shoppers.
Stacy Carkonen, executive director of the Tacoma Farmers Market, said Fresh Bucks is an important program because it levels the playing field and allows SNAP shoppers to double their dollars.
“It’s increasing the purchasing power of low-income families and households,” Carkonen said. “The other thing it’s doing is dispelling myths that low-income folks don’t want access to fresh food. That’s not true. Each week, we see more and more people coming to our markets to access fruits and vegetables for their families.”
Here’s how it works: Shoppers can visit the market information booth at any farmers market that offers Fresh Bucks. They swipe their SNAP card at the booth, just like they would in a grocery store. The farmers market staff then gives the customer wooden tokens for the amount the customer took off their card, and matches that amount with Fresh Bucks vouchers.
So, if a shopper asked for $10 off their EBT card, the market will give them an extra $10 to spend on local produce, herbs, fruits, veggies, mushrooms or plant starts. All of the Tacoma farmers markets offer an unlimited match — if a customer wants to take out $100, the market will still match $100.
“This program and our markets are for everyone,” Carkonen said. “It’s young and old. Everybody sees the benefit. When people have the option for fresh food, they’re taking it.”
Senior citizens are some of the most vulnerable folks who visit the market, she said. As they lose benefits, the market can turn $15 on their card into $30, and they can hold onto some of the tokens for another shopping trip if they need to make them stretch longer.
“We are so grateful to the legislature for including money to continue this program,” she said. “This money doesn’t just affect big cities because farmers markets are in every corner of Washington state. So, you’re getting big and small, rural and urban and that’s really impactful.”
The governor and first lady have championed efforts to reduce food insecurity among Washingtonians, especially children. Inslee’s Healthiest Next Generation aims to help more children maintain a healthy weight, be more active and eat well. He signed legislation in 2018 to expand the Breakfast After the Bell program and better combat student hunger in schools.
The first lady has worked with community advocates and higher education leaders to pilot programs for meals and other essential services, including a passed bill that helps homeless college students. The bill requires some of the state’s universities and community colleges to establish a pilot program that address how homeless students can access food, showers, laundry and storage services. Trudi met with advocates from The Evergreen State College in January to discuss how colleges can better serve students with food security needs.
The vegetable garden at the Executive Residence also provides fresh vegetables to the community through the Thurston County Food Bank. As of Aug. 1, 200 of the 500 pounds of food from the executive garden was donated to the Thurston County Food Bank.
State efforts to alleviate hunger may be thwarted by new efforts by the Trump administration to lower poverty thresholds in ways that would kick millions of vulnerable, low-income Americans off numerous poverty-reduction programs, including those that provide food benefits to seniors and children. The governor sent a letter to the Trump administration in April to oppose a USDA rule that threatens to eliminate SNAP benefits for 755,000 Americans, including 91,000 in Washington.
An even more recent rule from the Trump administration could eliminate SNAP benefits for 3.1 million people across the county, including 175,600 Washingtonians. This would affect 19,263 children under 5 years old, 46,839 school-aged children and 15,838 elderly individuals across the state. The rule could also impact 17,000 students in Washington from being eligible for Free and Reduced Meal Programs at schools.