RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) -- Amid the crowds shopping for produce at the Richland Farmers' Market, Carolyn Merrell and her mother-in-law Linda Herrera carefully selected corn, tomatoes, onions, cherries and blueberries from the colorful bounty.
But rather than handing over cash for their purchases, the West Richland women paid with Women, Infants and Children (WIC) vouchers from the Farmers' Market Nutrition Program.
"The regular WIC program doesn't cover it all," said Merrell, who's been a WIC client for six years. "(The vouchers) help supplement the rest of the food groups."
This and other local, state and federal programs seek to provide low-income citizens with healthy fruits and vegetables.
Even in the Tri-Cities, which produces a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, access to fresh produce remains an issue.
"We have a lot of people who don't have enough money for food here," said Annie Goodwin, preventive health services supervisor for the Benton-Franklin Health District. "Many clients say they cut back (on food) at the end of the month to make ends meet."
Almost $70,000 went to area farmers last year through the WIC farmers' market program, Goodwin said.
"It's been a win-win for absolutely everybody," she said.
A 2007 state survey indicated 15 percent of Franklin County's people aren't always sure where their next meal will come from. The rate in Benton County is 11 percent. Statewide, it's 10 percent.
A new report by Stacey Schultz, policy analyst with the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, says rural residents face more of a challenge in buying healthy food because they tend to live farther from grocery stores.
"We wanted to highlight the issue of access to healthy food and how that links up with poverty and the connections to health outcomes," Schultz said.
The report indicates that of the 37 census tracts in Benton and Franklin counties, residents in six must travel more than 10 miles to the nearest grocery store. Most of the tracts -- 26 -- require a trip of up to 3 miles.
"It's a huge irony that here's an area where so much of the nation's produce is grown, and yet it doesn't translate into ready access for people who live there," Schultz said.
Tri-City officials who work with the hungry say there are other reasons that low-income people have less healthy diets.
"It's a money issue and it's an education issue," Goodwin said.
Kathye Kilgore, director of Second Harvest Tri-Cities, said culture also can contribute to unhealthy diets. Some immigrants stick to traditional fare augmented with food they can afford that's not necessarily the most healthy.
Several programs are helping, officials said, including the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly Food Stamps.
Program eligibility was broadened last year and benefits increased, the Budget & Policy Center report said, adding, "These expansions were well-timed as the economy quickly fell into a recession and the need for assistance programs grew."
Participation statewide in the program, also known as Basic Food in Washington, grew more than 27 percent, with 160,000 more people served between February 2008 and February 2009, the report said, partly because of higher income limits.
And last year, the state Legislature passed Local Farms-Healthy Kids, allocating $600,000 yearly so 25 elementary schools in low-income areas, including in Kiona-Benton City, can offer students locally grown fruit and vegetable snacks.
Starting in October, the WIC program also will include fresh fruits and vegetables as options, Goodwin said.
Government programs are changing with new research on nutritional needs, she said, which means more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Meals on Wheels, which provides meals for seniors, also has changed its menus in the last couple of years, said director Marcee Woffinden.
In a 2008 survey, more than 96 percent of the program users said their diet has more variety because of Meals on Wheels, she said. And 65 percent were less worried about having enough to eat.
The organization also provides $40 vouchers to needy seniors to buy produce at farmers' markets. "I'm constantly amazed by how popular that program is," Woffinden said, adding about 620 voucher packets have been issued this year.
Another solution proposed in the Budget & Policy Center report springs off a program called the Healthy Corner Store Initiative, an effort to partner with smaller markets such as gas stations to sell fresh produce.
The policy approach is figuring out how to ensure that becomes that's economically viable, Schultz said.
Second Harvest also is trying to increase the fresh foods it provides food banks, Kilgore said. "We try to bring the product in and marry it with the distribution day," she said, because many food banks lack refrigeration for perishable foods.
About 15 to 20 percent of the produce Second Harvest Tri-Cities distributes in the summer and fall comes from Fields of Grace, which gleans crops that would be left in the field, Kilgore said.
Its trained volunteers often get to take produce home for themselves, another way to help provide fruits and vegetables.
Even with such programs, more than 27,000 people visit a food bank or other food resource in Benton and Franklin counties each month, Kilgore said.
"By a quirk of fate, it could be any of us,'' she said. "Look at your neighbor with a kinder, gentler heart."