RACINE — Sherrie Tussler, executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee, said her organization has found a solution to the shortage of healthy food in low-income areas.
The group teamed up with Pick n’ Save to fill a trailer full of produce and drive out to Milwaukee’s “food deserts” — which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as being more than one mile from a grocery store or supermarket (10 miles in rural areas) — and sells the produce at a 25 percent discount.
The Mobile Food Market launched in 2016; Tussler said they’ve sold more than $500,000 worth of produce.
“I think we’ve cracked this nut here in Milwaukee,” she said.
The question now is to how increase healthy food access across the state.
New pilot program
A proposed pilot program tests one way to encourage healthy eating among Wisconsin’s FoodShare recipients. Assembly Bill 501 would test whether providing discounts on fresh produce to FoodShare recipients would result in healthier food purchases. This bill requires the Department of Health Services to establish and implement a pilot program to provide discounts to certain households that are eligible for FoodShare benefits with discounts on fresh produce and other healthy foods.
Karin Kirchmeier, United Way of Racine County’s vice president of community impact, said healthy food can have a much broader impact on quality of life than most people realize.
“Healthy lifestyles make a big impact on a community, leading to better achievement at school and work, with reduced absenteeism and increased productivity,” she wrote in an email.
Tussler said she’s cautiously optimistic about the program.
“I support the idea; the devil is always in the details and how you might implement the project,” she said. “So the question is where you pilot it and how you’re going to pilot it.”
Racine County Food Bank Executive Director Dan Taivalkoski said that at least he prefers this proposal’s approach.
“I think offering an incentive for clients to purchase healthy products rather than limiting their ability to buy other products (is better),” said Taivalkoski. “(Legislators) were trying to eliminate (FoodShare recipients’) ability to buy those sugary products, and it turns the grocery stores into the food police.”
Kirchmeier said reducing the cost burden on FoodShare recipients is a good step, but cost is not the only issue for low-income families. According to the USDA, Racine is classified as a food desert, where there’s a lack of fresh, affordable produce in certain, mostly low-income, areas.
“Accessibility is an issue,” she said. “While the discount is great I think we’re still missing the accessibility part.”
Taivalkoski and his organization has teamed up with the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s FoodWIse program and Mount Mary University’s dietetics students to study what some of those other barriers are in Racine. Food Bank locations handed out surveys to clients asking about transportation, income, education and other factors that may affect healthy eating.
“That’s what we’re trying to drill down into in these surveys,” he said.
The surveys have been collected and the data is currently being analyzed, although Taivalkoski doesn’t know when those results will be ready.
Funding for the pilot program has already been approved in the State Assembly and the bill has been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations, where a public hearing was held. No further action has been taken and it’s unclear if anything will happen this session.