Shopping at a farmers market has a positive effect on the variety of vegetables consumed for participants of the Women, Infants and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program, but new research says the same dollars could buy more produce at supermarkets.

A study published in the May issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior compared prices of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets and farmers markets in the central Illinois region and found supermarket pricing was generally lower, according to a news release from the University of Illinois about the study.

Authored by the school’s Karen Chapman-Novakofski and Ashley Wheeler, the study was titled “Farmers Markets: Costs Compared with Supermarkets, Use Among WIC Clients, and Relationship to Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Related Psychosocial Variables.”

USDA has used farmers market vouchers since 1992 to allow WIC mothers to purchase more fruits and vegetables than they could otherwise afford. Benefits to participants typically vary from $10 to $30 per year, depending on the state. The farmers market WIC vouchers - unlike the WIC fruit and vegetable vouchers that are also a part of the program - cannot be used to purchase produce at grocery stores.

In the study, 377 participants were recruited from the WIC Clinic in Champaign, Ill., and asked about their dietary intake and habits, according to the release.

About half the participating mothers received vouchers for farmers markets; the other half did not. Fifty-seven percent of participants who used the vouchers had never shopped at a farmers market before, according to the release.

The study found that WIC participants who used the farmers market vouchers ate a greater variety of vegetables. In addition, 57% of WIC participants in the farmers market nutrition program said they were more likely to choose fruits or vegetables as snacks. Still, fruit and vegetable consumption levels of WIC participants in the farmers markets nutrition program were still far below national recommendations, researchers said.

The study found that prices of fruits and vegetables at supermarkets were generally lower than at farmers markets.

“WIC participants could have gotten more pounds at the grocery store, if they could have used (the farmers market vouchers) there, but they can’t,” Chapman-Novakofski said.

The finding that farmers markets had more expensive produce than supermarkets likely does not hold true for all of the U.S., she said. While some studies have revealed that farmers markets have higher prices for fruits and vegetables than supermarkets, other research has shown that the farmers markets are lower, she said.

I don’t know why (farmers markets) were higher in our area,” she said.

Chapman-Novakofski said more research is needed to know why those WIC participants who used their vouchers to shop at farmers markets generally have a good experience. More data is needed on how much of the food purchased at farmers markets is eaten, how consumers view the quality of produce offered and their commodity preferences.