Signs at the Monroe Street Market show they participate in Produce Plus. Photo by Gordon Chaffin

After working with the nonprofit D.C. Greens for seven years, the D.C. Department of Health is contracting with a new administrator for the city’s Produce Plus program. The new partnership will be unveiled in the next few weeks, program director Jo-Ann Jolly said. 

Produce Plus is a 17-week program that runs each summer. People who qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often referred to as food stamps, and other government food-support programs can receive $20 to be used strictly at farmers markets to buy fresh produce. Beneficiaries can participate in up to 12 out of the 17 available weeks. 

D.C. Greens first partnered with Produce Plus through their advocacy in 2012, they were allocated $50,000 in the city budget, according to their website. Today, they report Produce Plus receives a $1.2 million recurring investment.

This is why D.C. Greens is ending the partnership, co-founder and Executive Director Lauren Biel said.

“The funding is in place with the city… and there are other entities in the city that really focus on farmers markets and are ready, willing and able to lean in and take on this very important program for the long haul,” Biel said. “We felt the moment was right to hand the reins over to another entity that can really focus all of their attention on farmers markets.”

Need for food assistance

One in 10 households said they were food insecure before the pandemic, according to D.C. Hunger Solutions. Then local food insecurity doubled, according to the Bowser administration, and safety precautions due to the onset of the coronavirus meant farmers markets could not meet in 2020 as they had in years past. While Produce Plus Direct was created to deliver groceries, an evaluation of the program found participation was roughly half that of previous years, with over 4,500 people using the direct service compared to the typical 8,000 – 9,000 participants in Produce Plus. Farmers Markets and the traditional Produce Plus program resumed in 2021. 

         [Read more: Another program allows doctors to ‘prescribe’ free grocery vouchers]

Creating access to fresh produce in low-income areas was a main goal for D.C. Greens, Biel said. 

When the program started, 13% of D.C. households were food insecure according to data  reported by the USDA. In a questionnaire featured in the 2019 Produce Plus annual report, it was found that 72.9% of participants identified being “at risk for food insecurity.” There is a large focus on increasing accessibility in Wards 7 and 8, the District’s only food deserts. Approximately 45% of Produce Plus customers resided in those wards according to the 2019 report.

As Street Sense Media previously reported, only three full-service grocery stores served more than 160,000 people in wards 7 and 8 in 2020 — with three more under construction. By comparison, 11 full-service grocery stores served roughly half as many people in Ward 3.

Data shows that most of the District’s food desert’s are in Wards 7 and 8. Courtesy of D.C. Policy Center.

Focussing on those who need it most is something that will not change, Biel said. The main goal for the future administrator, she said, is to “continue in a way that honors and centers the folks who are most impacted by the problem.”

Jo-Ann Jolly, who has been with the Department of Health for four years and started managing Produce Plus in February, said she is extremely happy with the progress the program has seen.

Beneficiaries agree: “[Produce Plus] encourages shoppers to buy more fresh foods,” said Mary Regalado, a Park View Market patron who said she has been using government assistance programs on and off throughout the past few years. Regalado said she enjoys using Produce Plus because it is also a chance to support local farmers. 

         [Read more: Local food programs met food needs through the COVID-19 pandemic]

Challenges Produce Plus faced

While the program has created a documented increase in access to fresh produce, multiple obstacles have come up through the process. One pressing issue with the program is that there is more demand than supply, said Aliza Wasserman, who managed the program while under D.C. Greens. In order for the program to continue to be successful, she said, there needs to be an increase in funding. 

One example has come up through customer feedback. Beneficiaries are asking for all funds to be loaded on an electronic card, something similar to a debit card. This has been done successfully for SNAP benefits and WIC benefits. This would allow users to easily keep track of their benefits and have them automatically loaded onto their cards. A priority for the new administrator is to work toward getting cards set up.

“Some of these things that seem like they should be so simple to accomplish are actually incredibly difficult when you get into the nitty gritty [details]. There’s so many minutiae that make it so complicated just to move in a direction that seems so obvious,” Wasserman said. 

To address this and other customer concerns, Jolly said that Produce Plus plans to host listening sessions for anyone in the community to participate. The date for these sessions has not yet been decided but Jolly said they will take place before the next farmers market season starts. 

Overall, a success

Seven years ago, Biel said she could not have imagined the program would have come as far as it has. When they started, farmers markets were associated with white wealthy people, Biel said. Now, access to fresh, local food is available for those of all economic levels.   

“The Produce Plus program really secured the market for farmers to open up shop in communities where they previously had believed they wouldn’t make sales,” Biel said. 

Signage at the Bloomingdale Market shows what benefits are accepted, Sep. 19, 2021.

A sign posted at the Bloomingdale Market shows what supplemental food programs are accepted. Photo by Michelle Levine.

A primary goal of the program was to create markets where at least 10% of the population used SNAP, their website says. The original purpose of the program was to disprove the stereotype that farmers markets are “elite white spaces,” Biel said. 

This success is widely celebrated, she said, and something D.C. Greens is proud to have been involved in. 

As the program looks forward to starting with a new administration, Jolly said it is important for users to know that the eligibility criteria is not changing. 

“We are very excited at this opportunity to continue working to increase access to fresh foods,” Jolly said.