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February 22, 2016

How DC’s farmers’ markets improve food access and the local food system

February 22, 2016

In urban areas like Washington, DC, affordable and convenient farmers’ markets can help reduce the barriers to fresh food access that low-income residents might otherwise face. DC’s Produce Plus Program demonstrates how local government can partner with nonprofit organizations and farmers to address food access in low-income neighborhoods and support the local food system.

The Produce Plus Program is a farmers’ market incentive program for income-eligible District residents that runs from June to September. The program was created by the Department of Health with the intention of addressing poverty, food insecurity, and obesity in DC by increasing access to healthier food options. Among DC residents, 18.2 percent are living in poverty. Additionally, 27.3 percent of DC children experience food insecurity and 21.4 percent of children are obese, the third highest child obesity rate in the country.

Although there have been a number of efforts across the country to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables in low-income communities, these have focused primarily on individuals receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The DC Produce Plus Program casts a wider net, providing incentives to residents who are enrolled in any of several programs targeted at low-income households, including SNAP, WIC, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, and Medicare.

The Produce Plus Program is also distinct from many other farmers’ market nutrition programs in that it does not require participants to use their benefits or spend their own money to trigger an incentive. Instead, when an eligible resident visits an approved DC farmers’ market, they receive two $5 checks to apply to market purchases of fruits and vegetables that day. Participants can attend more than one market in a day, receiving $10 from each market they attend.

A partnership to build community

The Produce Plus Program depends on collaboration between two government bodies, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and for-profit farmers. The DC Council approves funding, which is then given to the Department of Health. The Department of Health creates the Produce Plus checks and gives the checks to market managers at approved markets. DC Greens trains volunteers on how to properly administer the checks and leads outreach efforts. Participants then use the checks to purchase items at the market and farmers deposit the checks into their bank accounts. This dynamic relationship enables government to reduce administrative costs by using nonprofit organizations to organize and run the program. Further, the Produce Plus Program is able to gain legitimacy through this partnership because the face of the program is the nonprofits, volunteers, and farmers, which breaks down the possible suspicion of government programs. The partnership also benefits the organizations and farmers: farmers can diversify their consumer base and increase their profits, and the non-profit organizations can help increase food access to target populations.

The Produce Plus Program also creates positive community gathering spaces for low-income residents. The Local Food Research Center has cited convenience and hours as a major factor in low-income customers’ decisions to shop at farmers’ markets. There are approved markets, most of which are located near bus stops or Metro stops, open every day at varied hours. And because people return day after day for the free fresh food, farmers’ markets in DC create opportunities for socialization among diverse groups of residents who might not otherwise participate in community activities together.

Community participation at farmers’ markets directly supports and promotes local farmers. Some farmers’ markets in DC, like the Aya Community Markets in Southwest DC, rely almost entirely on business from the Produce Plus Program to stay in business. The Program enables residents to engage in an intimate exchange with the person who produced their food, an interaction that would not exist in a regular supermarket.

The DC government leverages local farmers and markets to encourage thousands of families to be healthier. The Produce Plus Program serves as an example for other jurisdictions of how to operate a farmers’ market initiative by utilizing community partnerships to increase food access and support a more healthy, equitable, and sustainable local food system.

Apples and green beans for sale at the Farmers Market in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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