eKC feature
September 2, 2005


Missouri’s budget cuts
spoil state’s nutrition program

by Rhiannon Ross

Plump melons and tomatoes, crisp peppers and zucchini and crunchy ears of sweet corn are displayed on long tables, safely shaded in open stalls from the noonday sun.

At first glance, a colorful feast, in reality, unsold produce from that day’s Kansas City City Market.

State budget cuts to two supplemental nutrition programs — the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program — have hurt recipients and bruised the incomes of some small Missouri farmers.

“The budget cuts have certainly affected participants in the programs, including a strong Hispanic population served by the market,” Stephanie Spatz-Ornburn, director of marketing and events for the City Market, said.

“And it’s definitely impacted the farmers, especially those farmers who redeem the coupons on a larger scale,” she said.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, commonly known as WIC, provides coupons to low-income, nutritionally at risk recipients to purchase nutritious foods. WIC provides recipients with additional coupons through the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program to buy fresh produce from approved local farmers’ markets and roadside stands. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides coupons for seniors to do the same.

Spatz-Ornburn said the market master estimates losses from $4,000 to $6,000 for each of the 30 farmers participating in the City Market for the season, which runs from early June to late October.

This has caused some farmers to reduce the number of days they come to the market, Spatz-Ornburn said. The market is open Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.

“Several farmers are no longer coming on Sundays and Wednesdays because those were the days WIC shoppers usually came,” she said.

The City Market is not alone in its abandonment. Other farmers’ markets in the state also are feeling the pangs of the nutrition program budget cuts.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reports 10 counties out of 114 and the City of St. Louis participated in both nutrition programs last year.

Grow it … and maybe they will come

Joe Bryson, owner of Bryson's Farm Fresh Produce in Hale, MO, said he has lost close to $30,000 this season because the two nutrition programs have been cut by the state.

"It’s really killed this market," he said, gesturing over a table of watermelons to the sparsely populated City Market.

Bryson said he has lost more income because of the number of booths he usually operates. He had five booths last year. But this year, he had to cut one booth each from the Saturday and Sunday markets.

“I also cut five workers who ran the booths,” he said.

And he no longer attends the Wednesday market because “no one is there.”

Bryson, who has participated in the City Market for about eight years, blames new Gov. Matt Blunt for the program cuts.

"Blunt didn't just cost the farmers, he cost the whole state," Bryson said.

His daughter Brenda Ray agreed with him.

"It's caused a lot of sucky weekends," she said of declining sales.

Ray said the cuts to the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program not only harm small farmers but WIC recipients as well … and on a long-term basis.

“If you take away fresh fruits and vegetables from kids' diets, they get sick as adults," she said.

Ray said she also holds Blunt responsible for their plight.

"He's ruined everything. If (a program) helps people, he's totally destroyed it. If (a program) is going to help somebody, he takes it away.

“I won’t vote for him again,” she said.

Her father suggested Blunt suffer the same fate of a horse with a broken leg.

“Someone ought to take him out in a field and shoot him,” he said, euphemistically.

Darrel Clausen, proprietor of Lost Creek Farm, King City, MO, said he also has been impacted by the nutrition program cuts. He and his wife have sold fresh vegetables at the City Market for three years.

“It’s hurt us dramatically,” he said. “It was 50 to 60 percent of our sales last year. And it's not just hurt the farmer; it's also hurt the elderly and low-income people.

“Several seniors last year said they wanted us to come to a Kansas City retirement center and sell our vegetables, but cuts to the program threw that out the window."

And losses, he said, go beyond financial and good nutrition.

"(The market) gives people a chance to get out, a chance to buy local fresh produce. And some seniors like to reminisce about what it was like when they lived on the farm."

But Gary Beachner of Buds and Berries, Butler, MO, said he supports the cuts to the nutrition programs. He has sold his produce in the City Market for 10 years.

"It's hurt the market a little,” he said. "But I'm for any kind of welfare cuts they make."

The cutting board

This year, small Missouri farmers and low-income, nutritionally at risk Missourians missed out on more than half-a-million dollars in food aid when these programs were cut from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services budget.

“The governor asked, across the board, that a certain percentage be reduced from all agency departments, except education, to ensure appropriate funds were available for fiscal year 2006,” Nanci Gonder, public information officer for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said.

So the state of Missouri declined federal grants totaling nearly $428,000 to fund the two nutrition programs in 2005 because they did not have the more than $107,000 matching funds needed for the programs, Gonder said.

Dianna Moore, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, criticized that decision.

“In the big picture, that amount could have been preserved to keep Missouri healthy,” she said.

“Both the legislature and the governor’s office were facing and still are facing many tough decisions regarding budget cuts. Unfortunately, the choice to cut these programs ended up harming the state by causing it to lose money in general revenue and from the federal government that helps maintain services to the poor and elderly.”

New figures on poverty and the median income in Missouri were released on Aug. 30, Moore said.

“The poverty rate rose in Missouri while the median income actually lowered in Missouri,” she said.

“So Missouri cut (nutrition) programs made available to the poor and elderly at a time we are looking at higher poverty rates and families are facing more financial stress.

“In the big picture of all funding in the state of Missouri, this was a small amount of money that could have been kept in the budget to provide healthy vegetables and food for the elderly and most vulnerable,” she said.

And with the impending cuts in the food stamps program, the economic impact on families and the farmers who accept the stamps only will be compounded, Moore said.

Missouri has participated in the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program since 1994 and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program since 2002. Missouri is the only state that received grants last year for both nutrition programs that did not choose to participate again this year, according to the USDA.

However, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program never was meant to be permanent, Gonder said.

“It was to introduce the value of fresh fruits and vegetables to people’s diets over the past few years. We hope they’ll use the income they do have at the Farmer’s Market.”

No Mas (“no more”)

Requests for food at the Guadalupe Center, which serves the Kansas City Hispanic community, have tripled this year, said Diane Rojas, assistant director of health and human services at the Guadalupe Center in Kansas City, MO.

“Right now, in terms of the impact of poverty and inflation and its impact on families, food is the single greatest need we see, day in and day out,” she said.

Missouri has seen a significant increase in its Hispanic population, largely attributed to the promise of jobs in the meat processing industry and in landscaping, according to economists.

The U.S. Census Bureau released figures in August showing that the Hispanic population in Missouri increased by nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2004, with Jackson County experiencing the greatest growth at 86 percent.

Nationwide, Hispanics also comprise the largest population participating in the WIC Program at 38 percent, according to the USDA.

In Missouri, Hispanics represent 11 percent of WIC recipients for fiscal year 2005, Gonder said, with African Americans being the largest population participating in the state’s WIC Program for this same time period at 22 percent.

But underemployment not unemployment, Rojas said, is one of the major reasons she has seen why people are unable to buy food.

“People are working two and three jobs and are still underemployed. The minimum wage hasn’t been raised in a long time,” she said.

“People are just not making it. They have to make choices in their basic needs, and the first thing they eliminate is food.”

Changes made by the new Missouri administration, Rojas said, have contributed to this increase in poverty.

“With Governor Blunt, we have really felt the impact. (Poverty) was occurring before the new administration but it has escalated since he’s been in office.”

Seeds for the future ...

Clausen said he and his wife have a dream: They want to make a full-time living as farmers on Lost Creek Farm.

They hope Missouri reinstates both the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program in the near future.

This hope may reach fruition.

While the state does not plan to provide matching funds for the two nutrition programs in 2006, Gonder said, other types of funding are being pursued.

“We hope to reinstate the programs next year on the local level, using local matching funds,” she said. “If we can find enough local providers, we’ll apply in November.”

And according to the USDA, the federal government is seeking to make the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program permanent.

This knowledge helps nourish two more of the Clausen’s dreams—to sell their fresh produce to senior centers and to offer the community the chance to buy fresh produce directly from those who grow it.

“Everyone should go to the Farmer's Market,” he said.

Rhiannon Ross can be contacted at Rhiannross@aol.com.



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