Get fresh with Project FRESH

Local spotlight interview with Project FRESH champions.

My first job as a registered dietitian was providing nutritional counseling with the Women Infant Children (WIC) Program. Through hundreds of conversations with pregnant and postpartum women, I learned how valuable and important this federal program was to their health and the health of their families. WIC fulfills its mission to “safeguard the health of low income women, infants and children” by providing supplemental nutritious food, nutrition counseling, and screening/referrals to other health and social services. Results of studies conducted by the USDA Food and Nutrition Services have shown that WIC is one of the nation’s most successful and cost-effective nutrition intervention programs.

Since 1992, WIC clients have been given the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, or Project FRESH as it’s known in Michigan, provides clients with $30 of coupons to be used from June to October to buy fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. Michigan State University Extension and Grand Traverse County Health Department support and coordinate Project FRESH locally. I reached out to MSU Extension colleague Michelle Smith RD and the Grand Traverse County Health Departments Rebecca Noonan RD to learn a bit more about their experiences with Project FRESH.

Sarah: Project FRESH serves eligible and women, infants and children enrolled in the WIC program. How is Project FRESH promoted within the community?

Michelle: Project FRESH is a wonderful program that provides WIC families with coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The program promotes the health of our youngest community members and also supports our local farmers. Beginning in late winter, I begin to promote and talk about Project FRESH with my Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) SNAP-Ed participants, encouraging them to participate if they are signed up for WIC.

Rebecca: Our strongest Project FRESH promotion is actually through word of mouth. We’ve found that face-to-face explanation makes the most sense to clients, and recommendations from family and friends who have participated in the past are even more powerful. Additionally, in the spring, we begin advertising to clients during their scheduled WIC appointments as part of the nutrition education session. We also begin handing out promotional fliers in the waiting room. This program is so popular that we find many clients begin asking us about the program before our promotional period even begins. We have a lot of repeat participants.

A Project FRESH coupon booklet | Photo by: Michelle Smith

A Project FRESH coupon booklet | Photo by: Michelle Smith

Sarah: As someone who helps to distribute and encourage the use of Project FRESH, what comments have you heard from program participants?

Michelle: Program participants are always excited to be getting their coupon booklets at the beginning of summer. I have had participants ask if they can come back later in the summer to get more coupons to use at market. I would love to see this program expanded to provide more booklets per participant to allow for more fruit and vegetable purchases throughout the growing season. In the past few years, food preservation has become wonderful new trend. Quite a few participants can and freeze their produce to eat during the winter months. Many participants tell me that they puree produce and store in the freezer in batches to add to soups, stews, smoothies and sauces.

Rebecca: In general, all of our clients are just excited to get out to the market. The Project FRESH program often gives them that last incentive, the last push to get out and maybe visit the market for the first time. A comment we often hear when explaining the program to our clients is “maybe taking him to the market will help him eat more vegetables” or “she loves being able to pick out her own fruit and vegetables”

Sarah: For some people, participating in Project FRESH provides an introduction to a local farmers’ market. Have individuals or families shared with you how this program has encouraged them to continue shopping at the market once coupons are depleted?

Michelle: Many first time Project FRESH participants tell me that they have never been to a farm market. Grand Traverse County Health Department WIC, along with MSU Extension, provides information regarding location and time of local markets, tips on when you are at the market and questions to ask a farmer when they are there. We try to make this first time trip a comfortable one by giving them the information they will need prior to when they go. Project FRESH sees many repeat participants and this could be proof that once they go to a market, they will continue to go to purchase their fruits and vegetables. I have had participants tell me that they have received great tips and recipes from farmers on how to use, store and cook their purchased produce. This I am sure adds to the experience of a local market that you may not get at a grocery store – a connection to the source of where the food is coming from. This too is a great educational experience for children to accompany their parents to the market to meet the farmers and learn more about where their food comes from.

Rebecca: Absolutely! Many clients share that they have considered going to the farmers market in the past but haven’t made it there for whatever reason and having the Project FRESH coupons is the final push they need to get out there. Once clients visit the market, they’re hooked. Who wouldn’t be with all that beautiful produce?! We do see that Project FRESH participants continue to visit the market after their coupons have been depleted and that activity is often encouraged by participation in the Double Up Food Bucks as well.

Sarah: What are some popular produce items purchased by participants? What resources do you provide or discuss with families to encourage cooking with produce purchased at the market?

Michelle: Some of the more popular produce items are cucumbers, strawberries, apples, zucchini and sweet corn. Every participant receives education on how to use the coupons and also ideas of what to do with their produce. Canning and food preservation information is available along with recipes and websites for further information. Food safety is always addressed when working with produce and young children and pregnant women.

Rebecca: In the past, we have been able to distribute coupons and provide education right at the market, which provided us the opportunity to get more feedback on items purchased. Now, our education and distribution are done at the Health Department, which also has its advantages but we do not get the same feedback on items purchased as we may not see those clients again for another six months. I think that fruit of any kind is always popular for our clients. I have heard children express excitement for strawberries, blueberries and raspberries especially. Canning is coming back into popularity and I know some clients like to stock up on tomatoes for that. Sweet corn is also a favorite, as well as apples.

Sarah: How does the health department track or illustrate success or impact of the program?

Rebecca: Each year, the health department gets a report of our coupon redemption rate. From those numbers we can calculate how many dollars were spent by our WIC clients through Project Fresh and kept in a local community. WIC participants spent $4,867 ($4036 in 2014) in benefits at the farmer’s markets summer 2015. This was an increased redemption rate from 67% (2014) to 74% (2015). Our coupon allowance from the state is based on our participants’ redemption rate. The more coupons redeemed by our clients, the more coupons we receive the following year. We have received 35 extra books this year ($700 extra) for our county.

Sarah: How many famers’ markets in the area accept Project FRESH vouchers?

Michelle: Grand Traverse County has a fair number of markets that except Project FRESH coupons, but it would be nice to expand the list to include farmer markets in the southern part of the community too. I think more education for Market Master’s and farmers are needed regarding the Project FRESH program available in our county.

Rebecca: We currently have seven markets/roadside stands in Grand Traverse County accepting Project FRESH coupons. Some of the farmers that attend those markets which accept Project FRESH also have their own roadside stands where they may also accept the coupons. We provide a list of vendors that we know for sure accept the coupons during our classes but also encourage clients to ask their local roadside stands if they have a favorite that they frequent whether or not they will also accept the coupons.

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