Almost every Saturday morning for the past year, Elaine Virginia Coleman has stood in line to receive her Produce Plus card to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at the Columbia Heights Farmers Market.
The only time she’s not at the weekend market is when it’s too cold, she said, clutching the second-hand cardigan she was gifted last week from a woman at the shelter where she often stays.
Coleman, 58, has been experiencing homelessness for five years after her husband of 17 years died from cancer. After his death, she said she struggled with drug addiction and her mental health, leading to the loss of her job and apartment.
Life on the streets has been hard for her, but programs like Produce Plus have given her small reasons to keep on living, Elaine said.
“I started with the program a year ago, and it helped me get on my feet,” she said.
Produce Plus, an initiative funded by DC Health, provides $40 per month from June to November that recipients can use at select farmers’ markets in the District. In 2022, 6,000 D.C. residents were enrolled in the program.
The program also benefits the farmers who sell at the market since they keep 100% of the money spent through the assistance programs. In 2022, 44 local farmers participated in the program.
Dottie Hare, co-owner of Country Vittles from Critter Hill Farm in Maryland, has sold farm-raised goods at the Columbia Heights Farmers Market for 13 years. She has witnessed firsthand the impact Produce Plus has had on the market.
“You can tell when the program is not running because the market is a lot slower.When it’s up and running, it’s busy, but once it stops, the crowd isn’t near as much,” she said, waving a stack of used Produce Plus and Fresh Match coupons.
The coupons are distributed by FRESHFARM, an organization focused on building a more sustainable and accessible food network across the DMV by partnering with local farmers, non-profits, and governments to help people lacking access to healthy food.
Columbia Heights is one of their 30 farmers’ markets around the DMV. It is also a market that accepts SNAP benefits (formerly known as Food Stamps), Produce Plus, and Fresh Match.
While SNAP benefits are essential for many low-income individuals and families, there are still areas where the benefits fall short. While benefits are adjusted yearly to reflect the difference in grocery costs, the maximum allotment for recipients is the same across the country, despite some areas having a much higher cost of living than others.
The District is one of the most expensive places in the country to live, with housing costs over 50% of the national average and groceries at 5% over the average.
Sarah Weisbecker, Senior Market Operator at FRESHFARM, said the Fresh Match program benefits both district residents and local farmers. People with SNAP benefits can “purchase” a market coupon worth double the amount they bought it for.
“If we take ten dollars off their card, we will give them twenty dollars that they can spend at the market on SNAP-eligible products,” she said.
Elaine Coleman also utilizes the Fresh Match program when she attends the farmers market.
“These people really take care of me. When I want to buy something, they double it. It helps, because my benefits go as fast as I get them. This makes them last longer,” she said.
The Columbia Heights Farmers Market is open for business every Saturday, January 7- December 30 and Wednesdays May 3- November 22.