Bridging the Gap: Do Farmers’ Markets Help Alleviate Impacts of Food Deserts?

Year: 2011

Research Center: Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Investigator: McCracken, Vicki A., Jeremy L. Sage, and Rayna A. Sage

Institution: Washington State University

Project Contact:
Vicki A. McCracken
Washington State University
School of Economic Sciences
Pullman, Washington 99164-6210
Phone: 509-335-4728


Pressures of the globalized food system have left communities and individuals in precarious situations in which nutritious and accessible food is not a given. Research has begun to suggest that relocalization efforts will not necessarily alleviate these trends without directed efforts to produce exchanges that enhance both food and farm security. Existing research in the area of food deserts and community food security lacks significant empirical, spatially relevant support for developing a sound understanding of the variation in effectiveness of Federal food assistance programs in relation to local food systems. This research begins to fill this void by first establishing the traditionally conceived food desert estimation for Washington State using grocery store location and census demographic data, followed by an expansion using farmers’ markets. As food deserts are results of an interaction of concentrated poverty and low accessibility to healthful food sources, this report creates two metrics for food desert determination. For urban areas, good access is considered to be within a 1-kilometer (0.62 mile) walking distance. Meanwhile, the rural areas are assessed for the presence of food deserts based on a 10-mile (16.1 kilometer) network distance needed to be travelled. Both the urban and rural considerations are conducted at the census tract level, in which those tracts with poverty levels in excess of 20 percent and in excess of the distances identified are food deserts.

This report first establishes the presence of food deserts then provides an assessment of the variation in redemption rates and utilization of food assistance programs (e.g., SNAP; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, WIC; Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, SFMNP). SNAP data is obtained from a reduced sample of the 20 pilot markets located in Washington State, while complete WIC and SFMNP data have been obtained for 2009 and 2010 from all approved farmers’ markets. This research seeks to achieve the following objectives:

  • Quantify the utilization of food assistance programs by participants at farmers’ markets.
  • Quantify the variability of utilization based on market location in relation to key demographic characteristics of those eligible for Federal assistance.
  • Evaluate the evidence to suggest if farmers’ markets site select in a similarly market-motivated fashion as other food outlets.
  • Evaluate whether farm security and food security are mutually achievable goals.

This report contains descriptive summaries of 10 of the 13 urbanized areas (UA) of Washington in relation to their growing numbers of farmers’ markets. The remaining three UAs had no census tracts considered food deserts. In this section, visual support for any food deserts that exist in the UA is provided in addition to detail about the farmers’ markets in the area and indication of the variation in WIC/SFMNP redemptions as well as SNAP where available. The UAs have by far the majority of farmers’ markets in the state, 94 of the 169 markets. The remaining 75 markets are split between the smaller urbanized clusters (UC) of the State (37) and the remaining rural areas (38).

Findings suggest substantial variation in the amount of food benefits redeemed at each market based on whether the market is in an UA, UC, or a rural location. Markets in urbanized areas took in over $655,000 dollars combined in WIC FMNP vouchers, while UC markets took in roughly $124,000, and rural markets $9,000. These values reinforce the demographic variation in Washington and begin to highlight concerns of previous studies over the ability to achieve both farm and food security. In addition to the disparities between the rural and urban marketplaces, interesting trends appear to be emerging within urban areas. One example of this is the high rate at which urban farmers’ markets are located very near larger retail grocers or groups of grocers. This is especially evident in the larger urbanized areas like Seattle in which 29 of the 57 markets are found to be within the 1 kilometer buffer of a grocer, and many others not far removed.

In addition to simple observation of the presence or absence of food deserts, the final sections of this report develop spatially informed regression models. These models will better aid market managers, local planners, and managers of food assistance programs in seeking methods of increasing the efficiency of their programs and increasing the redemption rates of vouchers, thus further alleviating food insecurity in Washington State. Results indicate a negative relationship between the population-weighted average distance individuals must travel to a market and the rate at which WIC vouchers are redeemed. These results manifest themselves in the realization that food assistance recipients who do not live close to a farmers’ market site are less able to engage in the local food system despite the potential desire to do so. Additionally, as the degree of poverty of an area increases, as represented by the proportion of the population living below the poverty line, the redemption rates of WIC vouchers also increases. Similar observations exist for areas with increasing Latino populations.

To complement and nuance these models, several case study communities were selected to highlight issues brought to light in the study. These rural communities located in distinctly different regions of the state, have participated in the Extension-based Horizons program, which targets the reduction of poverty in rural areas. These communities self-identified food security as one of several community ailments. Interviews highlight the distinctive differences rural markets face as compared to their urban counterparts: (1) they are typically much smaller and thus often must rely on volunteer time to manage and facilitate the market, (2) the ability to navigate the systems required to accept programs like SNAP are hindered by size and local knowledge of the system, (3) they must carefully balance the timing of their market to both draw in the low-income consumers and ensure they can attract enough vendors to keep the market sustainable. The case studies serve as examples to suggest avenues for future research and highlight the possibilities and difficulties of actions aimed to reduce food insecurity.