A state pilot program launched this week in Tarrant County should increase access to fresh, local produce for clients of the Texas Women, Infants and Children program, state officials say.
Clients can now use their debitlike benefit cards at Fort Worth-area farmers markets using technology designed by a Southlake company.
If the system is well-received, it could expand to other counties, officials said.
The program will offer clients another venue to get healthy food and teach them about nutrition, said John Hannemann, state electronic benefit transfer manager.
"We are a nutritional education program," he said. "We want them to have good interactions with the people who actually grow the produce, meet the farmers and know where their food is coming from."
The pilot program involves the state, Tarrant County Public Health and the North Central Texas Farmers Market Association.
Almost 1 million Texans participate in WIC, a nutrition program that helps pregnant women, new mothers and young children eat well and stay healthy. In October 2009, the WIC program added fruits and vegetables to the program, but the cards were generally only accepted in grocery stores.
As part of the pilot, the Southlake company ii2P designed hand-held devices that accept the WIC benefit cards, as well as debit and credit cards, and supplemental nutrition assistance program benefits (also known as food stamps.)
Three farmers markets in Fort Worth and one in Richland Hills are using the devices.
Similar pilot programs are under way in Austin, San Antonio and Bryan, Hanneman said. The equipment is provided to farmers market associations, which distributes them to the farmers.
Greg Johnson, president of the North Central Texas Farmer Market Association, said the pilot should benefit farmers by introducing more WIC and food stamp clients to the markets. Because the devices also accept debit and credit cards, the program will also benefit other customers who don't carry cash, he said.
The state supplied the association with five devices, he said.
"It sounds like a win-win and, I think, as more people learn about it, the program will grow," Johnson said.
The devices were available for the first time Wednesday morning at the market in the parking lot of the Tarrant County Public Health building south of downtown. Scott Farms sold tomatoes, peaches, squashes and zucchinis while ii2P employees, Fernando Garcia and Rich Carter, stood by to assist.
Officials expect use of the WIC cards to be highest at the markets outside the health building and the Resource Connection in south Fort Worth because WIC clinics operate at those locations. Previously, some WIC clients redeemed paper vouchers at farmers markets but that program is no longer funded, said Ann Salyer-Caldwell, Tarrant County associate director of community health promotion.
Several WIC clients leaving the public health building stopped to buy fruit Wednesday morning. Neosha Nixon, who brought her four daughters to the market, said she was familiar with the vouchers and found the cards more convenient.
"This is much, much better," she said, holding open a bag of peaches for the girls. "It's so much easier when it's paperless."
Salyer-Caldwell said she expected attendance at the markets to grow as more WIC and food stamp clients learn they can use their benefit cards for fruits and vegetables.
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689