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Central Wis. working to bridge healthy food disparities

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released its findings of the hurdles people who...
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released its findings of the hurdles people who participate in the supplemental nutrition assistance program face when trying to maintain a healthy diet. It found nearly nine in 10 people have some kind of barrier.(WSAW Emily Davies)
Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 2:18 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released its findings of the hurdles people who participate in the supplemental nutrition assistance program face when trying to maintain a healthy diet. It found nearly nine in 10 people have some kind of barrier.

The cost of healthy foods is one, with 61% of people saying that was an issue, and the research found that those individuals are twice as likely to experience food insecurity. Nearly a third said they do not have time to prepare meals from scratch. Transportation was another common hurdle with 19% of people noting that challenge.

“What I take from that research that’s the most interesting is not actually what separates people on SNAP and people not on SNAP, but that we all struggle to eat a healthy diet,” Kelly Hammond, the Portage and Wood counties FoodWIse Coordinator as part of UW-Madison Extension said. “You know, we come home from work, people are hungry, it’s time to eat. We have a lot of fast-food restaurants in our area; we have a lot of convenience stores; we have a lot of corner stores and fewer grocery stores.”

Around 12% of Portage County is eligible for SNAP benefits. Upwards of 40% of students are eligible for free or reduce priced meals at school, and childhood poverty and SNAP eligibly hover around 20%. The SNAP program provides a monthly allotment of funds that go on a card that people can swipe to help pay for food. There are a few restrictions. It cannot be used to pay for hot meals; it has to be fresh or foods that can be taken home to be prepared.

Hammond’s job is to reduce the barriers for people on SNAP benefits to eating healthy by providing educational programming, providing evidence-based research analysis for existing central Wisconsin programs, or by conducting research to answer local questions about whether something is effective or will work to reduce barriers. One of those local disparities Hammond has researched over several years is people’s ability to purchase fresh, healthy, local food at farmers’ markets in Central Wisconsin.

“If you purchase your food with cash, you can shop at a farmers’ market. If you purchase your food with credit or with SNAP benefits, then that farmers’ market isn’t available to you,” she said.

She noted that only the farmers’ markets in central Wisconsin to have the ability to process electronic benefits transfers are Wisconsin Rapids, Waupaca, and partially in Wausau have the ability to do EBT, and those programs could be improved.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, there’s a lot of technology involved and a farmers’ market isn’t just one entity, it’s not just one person who manages the market, it’s a collection of farmers. So, you need to come up with a solution that works for every at that market,” she explained.

Often these programs run on a token system with a tent at the market that has people physically there with the equipment to process the EBT cards, pay for the processing fee, and hand out tokens for participants to use with vendors. Individual vendors can do the processing themselves, but that requires them to purchase the equipment and learn the systems, which can cost anywhere from $100-1,000 not including processing fees.

She said the programs that do exist are run by people who believe it is a program worth ensuring people have access to, “bootstrap programs.” Those programs are made possible through multiple partnerships with area organizations, like Central Rivers Farmshed. The Farmshed also breaks down other barriers by providing cooking demos, food fairs, meal programs, and mobile food pantries to get people more access to healthy, local food.

“Once we have those champions that will support it, an entity or nonprofit farmshed can come in and fill the gaps where it might actually take boots on the ground-type work,” Trevor Drake, the farmshed’s interim executive director said.

Hammond believes this access is a systems-level issue. She urged it is a government benefit that should have supports funded by the government to ensure access. There were initiatives to fund the supports for SNAP access in the governor’s original biennial budget, but they were ultimately taken out. Hammond has since applied for a $200,000 grant to address each central Wisconsin market’s individual needs to improve that access.

“The evidence is really strong that if we improve access to fresh local food, that people will buy it,” she said.

“Those dollars and those people are based in our community, so when you support them, you’re continuing to build jobs and a more robust community that you live in,” added Drake.

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