One of the ways ADHS can help eliminate Arizona’s food deserts is to try to get our vendors (the businesses that accept WIC coupons) to broaden their food inventories with healthier foods. The ADHS Program Integrity Team works to get this done. The Team actively reaches out to the vendor communities (grocery stores and other food retailers) to conduct technical assistance visits called Vendor Site Reviews. A few months ago, our Product Integrity Teams began encouraging (and compelling) vendors to stock new (healthier) foods including fresh fruits and vegetables, brown rice, canned salmon, and whole wheat breads, which we call Minimum Stock Requirements. So far, our teams have reached more than 550 vendors.
At the beginning of the initiative, about 35% of our WIC vendors weren’t carrying the right kinds of healthy foods. As of a couple of months ago, 92% of the vendors are carrying the right blend of healthy foods. The project has been a success for the Arizona WIC Program and clearly demonstrates the impact of policy changes and the success of providing training and support to our partners. But, we need to do more. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called food stamps) program is a much bigger leverage point that our much smaller WIC program. One of the things that we will be pushing for when the Farm Bill comes up for federal re-authorization in 2013 is to include nutritious food inventory criteria for SNAP vendors to meet in order to qualify as a SNAP vendor. By hitting this leverage point, we should be able to make significant progress toward nourishing food deserts in Arizona, as well as the whole country.
Why is SNAP a good leverage point for changing vendor behavior? Because the federal government provides more than $50B in SNAP benefits to families every year. For a point of reference- the total 2006 value of all food shipments in the US was roughly $538B- meaning that the SNAP program represents a sizable percentage of the US food basket. That’s called leverage.