The V.I. Department of Agriculture’s program to assist participants in the Health Department’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, will be expanded this year to include St. Thomas and St. John.
The pilot program began last year on St. Croix, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help provide fresh, unprepared, locally grown fruits and vegetables to WIC participants, while encouraging support for farmers’ markets.
The Virgin Fresh WIC Farmer’s Market Nutritional Program serves to help low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, and children ages 1 to 5, who are at nutritional risk, and aids them in purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
The USDA established the Farmers’ Market Nutritional Program in 1992, but the territory did not apply until for the federal grant money until last year, according to Abbelle Bakr, grant manager for the V.I. Department of Agriculture.
“For whatever reasons, the territory didn’t apply, but Commissioner Petersen has been active in trying to supplement funding,” Bakr said via a phone interview Thursday. “He’s also been very active in getting various block grants that have never come to the territory before, and at waving the flag, saying ‘Hey we have a viable product relative to agriculture here.’”
According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website, the territory received $98,470 in 2011 for the program, which Bakr confirmed. Those funds, however, did not get allocated from Congress until October of last year, so part of them will be used for 2012.
“Some of that money will roll into 2012 because by the time we got the funds – so late in the year – we didn’t get too spend much; 2012 will bring the same amount of grant, and we’re hoping to get it a lot earlier this year,” Bakr said.
Eligible WIC participants already approved by the Department of Health will receive Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program checks, in addition to their regular WIC benefits. Checks issued through the program may only be used to purchase eligible locally grown produce from farmers, farmers’ markets, or roadside stands approved by the Agriculture Department.
According to Bakr, the program works like this: after funding is received, the VIDOA provides checks in $5 increments to WIC recipients; the recipients take the checks to farmers markets or registered produce stands, and the farmers, in turn, take the checks and cash them at the bank.
Each WIC recipient can receive a maximum of $30 per year to spend on local, fresh produce.
“It’s a win- win nutritionally,” Bakr said. “We are moving them away from just super-market goods, and we really do have a great variety of things produced locally. The mission grows agribusiness and opens new markets of customers for farmers and road side stands.”
Bakr said that roadside stands need to be registered with the Department, and will get a sign to display for customers, as well as a description of how the program will work. Bakr said that the expansion to St. Thomas and St. John should be a big benefit for WIC recipients.
“With the initial program, because of the short time span on receiving funding, we were only able to distribute the checks on St. Croix, but it gave us the opportunity to feel the program out,” Bakr said. “The program went off without kinks, and so now we are ready to expand.”
Agriculture Commissioner Louis E. Petersen Jr. said of the program in a press release that funding will help. “In these economically harsh and challenging times, this exciting initiative provides supplemental funding to support farmers and thousands of families throughout the territory.”
According to the press release, fiscal year 2012 expects to see 5076 WIC recipients throughout the territory.
“In addition to the positive economic impact on our community, the Virgin Fresh WIC Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program contributes to a healthier population,” Petersen said.
For more information, or to register for participation, call: (340) 778-0997, ext. 239.