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The Times  Saturday 25th May 2002, p.14
By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent

SHOPPERS in the East End of London are being given food vouchers to spend at a local farmers' market to encourage healthy eating among people on low incomes.

By subsidising premium-quality produce, the scheme in Bromley-by-Bow also aims to entice farmers' markets into working-class neighbourhoods from the middle-class areas to which they are usually confined.

The vouchers are being made available to Bromley-by-Bow residents who are referred by GPs and social care workers to a local Healthy Living Centre which is administering the scheme. They receive four £2.50 vouchers each month to spend on fruit and vegetables and are not allowed to spend more than £5 worth of vouchers per market stall.

Although commonplace in the United States, food vouchers have long been regarded as a controversial method of welfare in Britain. When they were introduced for asylum seekers in 1999, critics said they would stigmatise an entire group of people.

Nina Planck, an American woman who masterminded the Bromley-by-Bow scheme, said she had been taken aback by the initial horrified response to her idea.

"I really wanted to start a market in the East End, but I was told they (vouchers) were insulting and the government had no business telling people how to spend their money," she said. "In America there is no stigma associated with discounts."

Ms Planck, who founded the London Farmers' Markets organisation three years ago, added that the US government subsidises farmers' market vouchers with £30 million annually. There, the uptake among those eligible is 85 per cent for pensioners and 70 per cent for women with young children.

"Middle-class liberals here may say it's patronising, but they still queue up for money-off schemes like supermarket reward cards," Ms Planck said.

Paul Brickell, chief executive of Leaside Regeneration Limited, which raised the money for the Bromley-by-Bow scheme from the government's Single Regeneration Budget, said that the vouchers had proved so popular with locals that there had been long queues for them.

"We were worried initially that people might see the vouchers as stigmatising and associate them with poverty," Mr Brickell said. "But we overcame that by associating them in people's mind with healthy eating."

"Just like a GP might hand out a prescription for medicine or refer people to an exercise programme, we give them vouchers for healthy food."

He added that the scheme was aimed specifically at helping reduce the high rate of diabetes and heart conditions among the local population, particularly in the Bangladeshi community, which were caused in part by poor diet.

The food voucher programme also has a wider aim of improving local diets. It is part of a regeneration scheme, supported by the London Development Agency and designed to improve the physical, social and economic environment of Bromley-by-Bow.

"The farmers' market is right next to studios where they shoot (TV series) Big Brother and London's Burning," Mr Brickell said.

"There are lots of jobs there but many people never go because it is separated from the main housing estates by a big road."

"We want to connect the farmers' market with people who live on the other side of the road."

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