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Food Access

Produce Plus: Analyzing a Food Access Program

Jun. 27, 2024
Shopper using the digital Produce Plus card at a farmers market

Evaluating Produce Plus

Produce Plus season began last month! This is FRESHFARM’s third year as the administrator of this food access program unique to Washington, DC. From June through November, participating DC residents with limited access to fresh, local food get $40 each month to spend at farmers markets on local produce of their choosing.

When we started running this program, we had ambitious goals: to switch the benefits from paper checks to digitized cards, enabling program participants to shop with choice and dignity. We also wanted to offer the program to more residents, as demand always exceeds supply, and aimed to increase redemption rates. 

To better assess our progress, FRESHFARM partnered with Sharp Insight to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of the Produce Plus program for the FY23 program year under our management. Sharp Insight conducted a robust evaluation by analyzing Produce Plus program data, survey responses from 1,441 participants, and interviews with seven participants. The evaluation’s goal is to help FRESHFARM and DC Health better understand the characteristics of Produce Plus participants, their experience using the benefits, the extent to which program participants report changes in their lives, food security status, or health, and what FRESHFARM can be doing better. 

The program outputs—the number of participants enrolled, cards activated, and benefits—were the foundation of the Produce Plus evaluation. And the numbers are impressive!

  • In 2023, 11,396 individuals applied for Produce Plus, with 67% approved and 33% waitlisted.
  • Among the 7,579 individuals issued a Produce Plus card, 5,445 (72%) activated their card, and 5,205 made at least one purchase.
  • From June 1 through November 30, 2023, Produce Plus participants redeemed $875,132 in Produce Plus benefits at 58 markets across Washington, DC. 

Produce Plus Successes

I am new to the Produce Plus program. I just started in Spring 2023. Since then, I’ve been eating cleaner and healthier. I feel better and look better. I have more energy and am more satisfied after meals when I eat fresh fruits and vegetables…my health has improved to the point that my doctor was able to reduce the amount of prescription drugs I had been taking prior.

 – Produce Plus Participant

Highlights from the evaluation of Produce Plus include very positive feedback from participants. Sharp Insight notes: “In both the survey and in interviews, a large proportion of respondents shared positive feedback, and 99% of survey respondents noted they would like to participate again next year. Nearly all survey respondents (98%) agreed or strongly agreed that, because they participated in Produce Plus, they ate more fruits and vegetables, and multiple survey respondents shared specific health gains they (and/or their doctors) noticed.”  

In addition to the high level of participant satisfaction with the program, Sharp Insight found that:

  • FRESHFARM worked to make Produce Plus as accessible as possible through language support and strategic partnerships, aiming to reach customers with the highest needs.
  • The Produce Plus program benefited the local food economy. Participants spent $875,132 in incentives with regional farmers, resulting in an economic impact of $1,487,724 (the total of incentives spent and the re-spending of those incentive dollars in the economy by individuals and businesses in the supply chain).
  • The information available through the digital Produce Plus card enabled FRESHFARM to respond to trends and allocate resources where needed based on real-time data.

Produce Plus Challenges

As with much work that aims to transform the food system, Produce Plus in 2023 was not without its pain points. Survey participants identified areas where improved communication might enhance the Produce Plus experience. Some participants reported problems redeeming the benefits at the market. A range of reasons were cited, including a lack of signage, farmers needing help with the technology, or farmers simply not wanting to take the benefit. 

The most significant program challenge, however, is funding. Sharp Insight notes that “demand for Produce Plus exceeded the supply of funding, resulting in 33% of applicants being unable to participate. One-third (33%) of those who applied for Produce Plus were never able to enroll in the program. In addition, high inflation during the season reduced the real spending power of the incentives.”

What’s Next?

Produce Plus helps District residents with limited access to fresh produce purchase fresh and local fruits and vegetables In 2024, we look forward to continuous improvement of Produce Plus, building on our successes and learning from our challenges, and we are off to a great start. This year, we had 13,000 applicants, with 7,000 applying within the first week of opening enrollment.  As of late June, 4,000 cards have been activated and are being used by people with limited access to fresh produce to purchase fresh, local fruits and vegetables.

Want to dig deeper into the evaluation? Read the full report

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