The Milwaukee Farmers Market Connection has increased access to farmers markets food for lower-income Wisconsin residents. Photo courtesy Fondy Food Center

The Milwaukee Farmers Market Connection has increased access to farmers markets food for lower-income Wisconsin residents. Photo courtesy Fondy Food Center

Farmers markets are great for our health, especially our nutrition. But there’s one big problem.

“Unfortunately, the people that shop at farmers markets are usually white, middle-to-high income, highly educated and female,” said Jennifer Casey, executive director of the Fondy Food Center in Wisconsin, at an Annual Meeting session on “Community Gardens and Food Systems to Increase Fruit and Vegetable Consumption.” “And that’s missing a huge segment of our population.”

In both Wisconsin and Wyoming, researchers have taken giant steps to increase access to healthy food systems like farmers markets and community gardens. For example, Casey and researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin collaborated on a two-year program to improve access to healthy food for diverse populations — especially people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Nationally, less than half of a percent of SNAP benefits are used at farmers markets. Yet the MKE Farmers Market Connection in Milwaukee, which offered 100 lower-income people additional vouchers to shop at local markets, found that 95 percent of the recipients both enjoyed the food and planned to return in the future. Additionally, 74 percent of the participants received SNAP benefits, which could be used at the markets.

“Some people wanted a wider selection of fruits at the market, which can be a challenge in Wisconsin. We’re not exactly growing pineapples,” Casey told attendees. “But … (it’s) progress.”

Community gardens also improve nutrition as well as physical, emotional and environmental health, according to University of Wyoming Associate Professor Christine Porter. Her “Team GROW” research team worked with 30 local gardeners to weigh harvests from their home and community garden plots for several seasons.

The average garden, of just over 250 square feet, yielded enough food to supply two adults with their daily recommended servings of vegetables for more than four months. Additionally, gardeners finished the study with healthier BMIs and increased hand strength, while “all gardeners reported it improved their health at least to some extent,” researchers reported.

“I was floored by the results,” Porter told session attendees. “I was kind of skeptical about the power of gardens to improve nutrition in a community. I should have known better.”