Pixies for the People: A new WIC Local Food Line

Can you hear the chanting?

“Pixies for the People!”

How about the drums? “Pixies for the People!”

Pixie Tangerines, that is, not Tinker Bell.

When I first learned of this initiative to provide free fruit, fresh from the farm for WIC recipients, I found myself hollering “Pixies for the People!” in pure ’60s protest style. I could practically taste the amazingly sweet and delectable pixies that farmer Jim Churchill donated to a Community Food Security Coalition conference I attended a few years ago. (That’s him in the photo.) Oh, to live in the Ojai Valley in early April!

The pixies giveaway is part of a new program called the WIC Local Food Line, which launches today at three Los Angeles County WIC-only stores. Although Prime Time Nutrition, Mother’s Nutritional Center, and Fiesta Plaza are limited by law to giving away a maximum of $2 worth, or about about 5 to 6 pixies, per person, this new distribution model demonstrates a seismic shift in providing fresh, healthy good food for all.

You’re shrugging. How can $2 of pixies equal an earthquake in food policy, you ask?

Quick WIC

WIC’s full name is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Its purpose is “to safeguard the health of low-income women, infants, and children up to age 5″ by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care. In California, 82 WIC agencies serve 1.4 million women, infants and children each month at over 600 sites throughout the State, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Through the unprecedented program starting today, these select WIC-only vendors are not just giving away fresh fruits and vegetables, they are sourcing that food locally and directly from California’s small family farmers in the Ojai Valley. They have chosen to do so as a broader effort to educate and expose their consumers to the value, quality and taste of local foods.

The WIC Local Food Line was created by Vanessa Zajfen from the Center for Food & Justice to deliver high-quality, nutrition-dense foods for low-income populations. Think about the economic benefit to growers like Jim Churchill and the 37 other Ojai Pixie Growers as a result of the bulk purchase by WIC today. Imagine the economic boost to farmers if all of the 46,000 merchants nationwide that accept WIC vouchers got involved in the WIC Local Food Line!

As the first farm-to-WIC direct distribution project, the Pixies project capitalizes on innovative adaptations of the retail Harvest of the Month (HOTM) program and the new WIC food package that must be implemented by October 1, 2009. (Two states, Delaware and New York, have opted out.) The revised policy mandates that WIC stores must supply fruits and vegetables if they are to continue to be an approved WIC vendor and thus redeem WIC coupons.

Starting last fall, the WIC program’s food package was updated for the first time in 30 years.  It now includes a monetary benefit for the purchase of fruits and vegetables. This will be the first time WIC customers can buy fresh fruits and vegetables from WIC vendors using their WIC benefits. Mothers will get $8 a month of cash value vouchers; kids get $6.

It is easy to confuse the existing WIC Farmers Market Program and the new WIC program food package that will allow for the purchase of fruits and vegetables; they are separate programs. As I understand it, farmers markets that currently accept WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers are accepting the coupons for the WIC Farmers Market Program, not for the regular WIC program.  The WIC Farmers Market Program is a great program, but its growth potential and access to low-income participants are limited.

This is where the WIC Local Food Line can take full advantage of the new WIC guidelines by supporting local farmers and providing high-quality fresh produce as they have done today.

From Pixies to Policy: Why organic choices are excluded for certain WIC-authorized food groups

Let’s step into one of the three stores participating in Los Angeles. The Mother’s Nutritional Center is a privately owned business located next to a WIC center in South Los Angeles. Imagine a young mother walks in: She sees a colorful, clean room with a TV displaying nutrition education and a counter behind which are all the food products. Taking a number, she waits to be served by the staff. The choices are limited to WIC-approved items such as milk, cheese, dry beans, canned beans, cereal, cream of wheat, bread, limes, onions, chipotles, and formula.

In California the WIC authorized foods — which are determined by the state not the vendors — exclude the following organic versions of these items:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • brown, organic, cage-free eggs
  • bread
  • cereal
  • beans
  • peanut butter
  • meat
  • baby formula

They do allow organic fruits, vegetables, and tofu. Not to seem ungrateful, but this is a rather gaping hole created in that seismic shift. How can we “safeguard the health” of our most vulnerable, low-income mothers and babies by excluding organic grains, milk, eggs, and meat?

If you are a regular reader of the Ethicurean, I don’t need to convince you of the personal and ecological health benefits of organic. But if you need some additional facts in your diet, read Dr. Alan Greene’s  Why Organic is the Healthiest Choice for Kids as a start.

In defense of the federal WIC program, there’s no prohibition on organic: instead there are maximum allowable reimbursement rates.  California has not made a policy decision to forbid organic, exactly, but rather most of the organic products don’t fit within the maximum reimbursement rates in the WIC program. And in a discretionary program like WIC, in a populous state such as California, a marginally higher cost of even 3% to 5% can mean hundreds of thousands of low-income kids will not get served.

However, if we can make a cost argument that organic foods are not more expensive, then we must make the case to the state agency.

In addition to cost, the categorical exclusion of organic is most likely due to the sheer volume of grocery store items that need to be approved.  With so many new products coming on and off the market, it is difficult for state agencies to keep up with them all.  Often, a state agency will approve the branded items that are widely available (see the approved cereal list).  This tends to exclude niche products, private label products, etc. even if they are price competitive.

OK, so we’ve got a long way to go to include other organic products, but let’s celebrate the pixies.

Go ahead now, let’s give a big shout-out for “Pixies for the People!” Don’t hold back.

I heard through the WIC Local Food Line that avocados are up next, for May. And I’m hoping this catches on in my home state of Ohio, so we can do a similar rallying cry of PawPaws for the People in September.

Hey USDA

“Hey, USDA, what’s up with three meals a day?”

“Hey, USDA, how can I learn if I can’t eat?”

“Hey, USDA, imagine I’m your kid!”

Watch the full 22 seconds.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the Chicago USDA Listening Session on the Child Nutrition & WIC Reauthorization Act with the Great Lakes National Farm to School Network. The session opened with a three minute video on the Milwaukee Summer Feeding Program with a voice over by Sherrie Tussler from the Hunger Task Force and she then concluded with 22 seconds of questions posed by children.

Wow. You could hear heart strings tearing.

Kudos to Sherrie and the Hunger Task Force for using their allotted 3.5 minutes to visually show how this federal policy is impacting communities. You blew us away.

Open to the public, the session enabled whoever pre-registered to speak up for the changes necessary to the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Summer Food Service, Child & Adult Care Food Program, WIC, and more. Testimony was provided by food service staff, a mother of seven children, farm to school advocates, vegetarian crusaders, anti-hunger groups, Departments of Education, Action for Healthy Kids, American Dietetic Association, National Farm to School Network, and others…not to mention the National Pork Board, American Commodity Distribution Association, and the Schwann’s Company (the largest supplier of pizza and frozen entries for school lunch).

Some requests included:

  • Mandatory funds for local foods in school meals
  • Increased reimbursement rates
  • Training for food service to prepare whole foods
  • Kitchen Facility Grant Program
  • Farm to School Grant Program

The transcripts won’t be available until mid October, and I’ll make sure to share them when available, highlighting what the different groups requested in their testimony to the USDA.

Until then, please watch the videos!

Carrots v. Cupcakes: An Olympic question

The carrots with which we entice our children to perform well have morphed into colossal sugary carrot cupcakes, as highlighted in the Los Angeles Daily News this morning. The article portrays the debate over the appropriate incentives to get children to read as pitting one responsible party against another. Whose job is it to keep our children healthy — government, parents, or public/private institutions such as libraries?

The answer is D: All of the above. We are responsible as a society to give the best possible future to our children. I’m involved with two organizations that work toward that goal. With 30% of our school children overweight, we need programs such as Farm to School to plant lifelong eating habits in our kids, to help them appreciate real food that will nourish their minds and bodies. And as Moira Beery, the California farm-to-school coordinator at Occidental College’s Center for Food & Justice, says, “Pizza parties in and of themselves aren’t bad, but we have to be deliberate about examples we set for kids.”

While the Olympics race on in China, the USDA is holding its own tryouts of sorts right now with listening sessions to discuss the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which affects school lunch programs, WIC, and much more. Groups ranging from children’s health advocates to sustainable agriculture nonprofits are speaking up for universal access to healthy food, higher reimbursement rates tied to meal quality, and mandatory funds to support farm-to-school programs. Sessions in Georgia, Illinois, and Colorado are coming up (see schedule). You can also submit comments on the Act electronically up until October 15. 

The greatest return on investment we can make as a nation is feeding our children nourishing, good, fair, and clean food that will fuel the best bodies and create an environment for better learning, which will in turn build a healthier community and stronger nation.

Go for the gold, America!

Kale is Cool

“Stir-fried kale. They ate it. All of it. Gone,” Aziza Malik, Healthy City Kids Coordinator, says in proud amazement of teens eating the kale they harvested that day.

At Burlington, Vermont’s Intervale Center, the Healthy City kids program is growing more than veggies. Twenty-five teens gain hands on experience in community food security: growing and harvesting vegetables from a five-acre farm for neighborhood nonprofits and for the Burlington School Food Project, a model farm to school program.

Watch this amazing brief video of the program. Kudos to Eva Sollberger for her great coverage and capturing palpable hope and happiness in the fields.

Maybe you’ll grow some too by watching.

Worm War I

There’s something about caring for a tomato plant that brings out every nurturing instinct in me. It becomes a long choreographed dance of pruning, irrigating, mulching, deworming, and finally, harvesting until I am literally in constant tomato motion during peak season…my own version of tomato salsa.

But believe it or not, I think there may be another living being that likes tomatoes more than me. Actually, a lot more than me…as this vagabond in my garden not only dines on the fleshy fruit, but also on the leaves as he clings camouflaged on the curvy vines! I suppose it’s not really a fair competition because this is his sole means of fuel until he burrows into the ground to morph into his next phase of life as a moth.

So should I pardon the wryly tomato horn worm and his ephemeral life?

I think not! He has the audacity to arrive every July lusting for lush Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, Valencias, and Striped Germans with no invitation and partakes in the fruits of my work that I have nourished and invested in since March. No siree, this colorful green intruder has paid no respect to the feast I have cultivated.

Granted, he does seem to appreciate the tomato leaves, but his glutinous ways are taking away the potential of future salsas, sauces, and soups! Known formally as Manduca quinquemaculata, tomato hornworms are the larvae of hawk or sphinx moths. The last larva stage is the most destructive as the worm consumers over 90% of the total combined foliage once it reaches 3-4 inches, which can be death to a tomato plant.

I’ve become obsessed with finding evidence of the manduca’s mighty appetite: tiny piles of brown or green droppings is a quick sign of their surreptitious presence and then the emaciated vine—stripped of leaf and budding blossom. And if you get close enough to the plant and slightly wiggle the leaves, you will hear their warning call. A shrill “schtick, schtick” resonating through the thick jungle of tomato leaves exposes their guise. Then the plump, insatiable worm will appear—the meal and masquerade is over.

Plucking their tightly grasped hooks off the vines, I drop them into a bucket of water. Other tomato soldiers have taken the more adventurous and continuous life cycle approach by giving a unique twist to fried green tomato…horn worms. For now, I am going to pass on eating the chlorophyll critter and consider its capture from the camouflage friendly canopy another battle won and tomato saved.

Two Dimes to Every Dollar

Eat Local

Eat Local

Two dimes to every dollar that you spend…that is how much the farmer pockets when you dole out the cash at the grocery.
In case you haven’t seen the new numbers crunched by the National Farmers Union, check out their new Farmer’s Share of the Retail Food Dollar fact sheet. These are great numbers to reference when talking to your neighbor about the importance of supporting your local farmers through direct marketing venues when you can.

The farmers’ markets are almost in their peak season so look for one near you: http://www.localharvest.org/

Bittersweet

Earlier last week the Corn Refiners Association launched a multimillion-dollar media campaign to defend high fructose corn syrup as a “quality” sweetener, in the face of mounting public perception that this cheap, ubiquitous compound has played a not-so-sweet role in making Americans chunky and sick. (See Marc’s May post on the connection between HFCS price and consumption patterns.) Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just announced that the number of Americans with diabetes increased to 24 million in 2007. But that’s just the tip of that deadly sundae: another 57 million Americans have pre-diabetes, a condition that vastly increases the risk of developing diabetes in the future.

Diabetes results when the body cannot use blood sugar as energy, either because it has too little insulin or because it cannot use insulin. Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 90% to 95% of cases, typically develops later in life and is associated with obesity and lack of exercise. Type 1 diabetes, which is often diagnosed in children, occurs when the immune system mistakenly destroys cells that make the insulin. An estimated 1 in 3 children born in 2000 will be diabetic in their lifetime; the risk factor increases to 1 in 2 for Hispanics and African Americans.

I find the Corn Refiners Association’s chutzpah unbelievable. Our already failing health care system is ill-prepared for the absolute crush and cost of the coming wave of diabetics, yet industry is spending millions of dollars to persuade us to partake of even more empty calories. With 30% of the U.S. population considered obese, as recently highlighted by the Washington Post and Time Magazine, the last thing our country needs is more sugar of any kind.

I am not a scientist and I am not going to try to explain the molecular composition of this industrially derived corn byproduct, but I have witnessed firsthand what a lot of high fructose corn syrup will do to a diabetic. Have you ever been on a roller coaster? Taking a swig of a Coke (sweetened with lots of high fructose corn syrup, as almost all sodas are) is like when that roller coaster starts to gain momentum; as you drink the last drop, your hands are up in the air and you’re riding high. But then just moments later, you dip and your stomach is in your throat and suddenly your body is at a standstill — or worse, crashed. That is what HFCS (and many other sugars) do to your blood sugar: an intense pick-me-up, then a dramatic fall as your metabolism tries to pick up the pieces of glycemic overload.

When my husband was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at the age of 25, we ate our meals like our life depended on it. In his case, it did — and still does. It was a dramatic change for a 190 pound 6’ 4” former college athlete.

For months I cataloged every morsel that he ate in excruciating detail, noting the grams of carbohydrates so we could calculate what his failing pancreas could handle, i.e. two slices of whole wheat bread (22g) + garden veggie burger (5) + avocado (2) + 1/2 cup steamed green beans (5g) + side salad (8) + handful of grapes (15g) + milk (6.5) = 63.5grams. According to our Diabetes Educator, the average person needs 136grams of carbs a day for his brain to function. Amazingly enough, the Corn Refiners Association seems to think it is ok that the food supply currently provides an average of 200 calories [read: carbs] per person per day from the high fructose corn syrup in soft drinks alone (What to Eat factoid).

For a young married couple that loves eating, turning the best part of the day into rations and ratios accompanied by nit-picky nagging, “You shouldn’t eat that much bread” or “Don’t you dare pick up that cookie!” was not enjoyable, to say the least. But every time he raised a sugar-laced sweet to his mouth, all I saw was an amputated foot … or a heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, blindness. Food became a necessary evil at that point.

Diabetes is a silent disease; it doesn’t strike quick and fast like some cancers, but its reach is far, its grip tight, and its blow deadly. Thanks to advances in modern medicine — insulin — diabetes has transformed from an acute disease (with a death sentence typically within a year) into a disease that slowly destroys a body with debilitating side affects; my husband would describe the result as bittersweet.

“It is a disease that does have the ability to eat you alive. It can be just awful — it’s almost unimaginable how bad it can be,” said Dr. John B. Buse, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine and is the Diabetes Association’s president for medicine and science, in a recent New York Times article titled “Diabetes: Underrated, Insidious and Deadly.”

Our bodies and society need us to stop eating sweeteners like HFCS, which are empty of any nutrition except calories. Efforts like those by the Corn Refiners Association do nothing but harm at risk populations, the millions of existing diabetics and pre-diabetics in our country, and the rest who must help shoulder the burden through rising health care costs.

But the good news is that we can help eradicate Type II Diabetes and help keep blood sugar levels on an even keel for Type I Diabetics, possibly eliminating the awful long term affects of both types. All we need to do is encourage people to eat real food. And that means no highly processed food and no HFCS, just good, fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed beef, pasture poultry…all the foods that our great grandparents would list in their cookbooks. Ones that actually have flavor!

So even if the Corn Refiners Association has $30 million to throw at us to confuse and contort what we should be eating, the good food movement is strong and growing ever stronger through community gardens, farm to school programs, farmers’ markets, healthy corner stores, the beginning farmers movement. I hope millions of eaters will prove to them that we are smarter than their almighty marketing dollars.

For our taste buds and pancreases, my husband and I continue to enjoy eating the HFCS-free fruits and vegetables that we grow on our beginning organic farm.

Further reading

Some excellent books that mention the role of high fructose corn syrup in our diet debacle:

Fat Land by Greg Critser

What to Eat by Marion Nestle

Appetite for Profit by Michele Simon

Real Food by Nina Planck

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