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The Produce Paradox

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For low-income families, buying cheap, high-calorie processed foods isn’t just an easy decision — it’s often a necessity. According to a study published by researchers at the University of California-Davis, most low-income families can’t fit the USDA’s recommended amount of fruits and vegetables into their tight food budgets.

Whole health advocates would like this year’s farm bill to narrow the price gap between the snack food aisle and the produce bin, which sits at just under $17 per 1,000 calories, according to a recent study by the University of Washington’s Center for Obesity Research. But it appears that’s a bust. The bill, which just recently regained momentum after being stalled for weeks, has many of the same staple crop subsidies in place that it’s had in the past.

The USDA, however, has decided to step up. Last week the agency announced significant changes to its supplemental nutrition program Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which supplies vouchers for specific foods to approximately 8 million low-income individuals. This overhaul — the first in nearly thirty years for the program, according to the USDA — will rearrange WIC’s payouts so that it gives more for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and less for dairy, eggs and juice. These changes will go into effect next February.

Under the new guidelines, monthly vouchers for fruits and vegetables will be $6 for children, $8 for women, and $10 for breast-feeding women. That’s higher than previous years, but it may not be enough to adequately cover the rising cost of produce, which has jumped nearly 20% in the past two years (unlike the price of Twinkies, Doritos and the like, which has remained relatively stable).

Indeed, there’s been a string of studies and articles recently highlighting the negative link between the nation’s poor and the rising cost of healthy food.

“The gap between what we say people should eat and what they can afford is becoming unacceptably wide,” noted University of Washington researcher Adam Drewnowski.

Beyond the price issue, there’s also the troubling fact that low-income areas often lack access to grocery stores with healthy selections — “food deserts”, as they’ve come to be known. Last month, Louisville’s Courier-Journal commissioned a study that found the poorer west side of town to have only one full-service supermarket per 25,000 residents, while the rest of the metropolitan area had one for every 12,500 residents.

Supermarkets and the food industry as a whole have their work cut out for them. Whether they choose to actually take action is another story altogether.

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