Credit: Laura Hayes

For seven years, Washingtonians with chronic illnesses affected by diet have been able to obtain prescriptions for fresh produce from doctors and redeem them at area farmers markets. Local nonprofit DC Greens operates the Produce Rx program that just got a major boost last month. 

Residents who qualify for the program can now exchange their produce prescriptions at Ward 8’s only full-service grocery store—the Giant at 1535 Alabama Ave. SE. They must be Medicaid patients with Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or pre-diabetes. The pilot program will serve 500 people from March through December of this year. The expansion of the Produce Rx is a partnership between DC Greens, Giant, AmeriHealth Caritas, and the DC Department of Health.

“We’re calling it proof-of-concept so we can learn and hopefully implement it in other D.C.-area stores,” says Giant Foods’ Director of External Communications and Community Relations Felis Andrade

In practice, the program is relatively straightforward. First, a patient obtains a prescription from their AmeriHealth Caritas healthcare provider. Then they bring their prescription to the pharmacy inside the Giant, where a pharmacist will hand them a voucher that can only be used to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables. Andrade says staff members there have been trained to help shoppers navigate the produce aisle. There’s also an in-house nutritionist, Jillian Griffith, who is available for free on-site education, tours, and consultations.

“If you’re not used to shopping [for] fruits and vegetables, it can be overwhelming,” Andrade explains. More than half of Ward 8 is considered a food desert due to the lack of nearby grocery stores, according to the D.C. Policy Center. 

Patients in the program will receive a $20 coupon per week to spend on produce. Based on Giant’s current prices, that $20 could get you a bunch of bananas, three apples, three sweet potatoes, a bunch of asparagus, a head of lettuce, two cucumbers, and four tomatoes.

“I really feel like the District has been talking so much about the supply side of healthy food,” says DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel. Her organization addresses local food injustice through food education, food access, and better food policy.

“There are a lot of important conversations and some city investment in making sure that we’re funding more grocery stores and putting more physical access in place. But what I find most exciting about this program is it’s also putting resources into the demand side … If folks don’t have the resources to purchase the food, you’re never going to have the stocked shelves you want to see in communities.”

AmeriHealth Caritas and the D.C. government are subsidizing the cost of the produce, representing an innovative public-private-nonprofit partnership. Shweder Biel says they could integrate additional Managed Care Organizations (MCOs) in the future should the program prove successful, but working solely with AmeriHealth Caritas makes it easier to track results and impact right now. Finding out if Produce Rx patients visit the emergency room less often would be one of many valuable data points that could fast track similar programs nationwide.

“If this kind of program can unlock a return on investment for the healthcare system itself, that’s how you open up a larger stream of funding for food-as-medicine approaches,” Shweder Biel says. She notes that there’s already language in the 2018 Farm Bill about produce prescription programs that could be supported by the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant Program. “We’re just really excited to be a part of this front edge of national interest in food as medicine,” she says.

Shweder Biel says Giant has been a dedicated partner in the project and she’s impressed by the other moves the store has made to be a community hub for good health. “Giant has done a real facelift and renovation to the Alabama Avenue store,” she says, pointing to their wellness room where they have various activities arranged by Griffith. “It’s really exciting how Giant has been stepping up into the role of recognizing the responsibility of being the only store in Ward 8.” 

(A second full-service grocery store is on the way. WAMU reports that a Good Food Markets should open at 4001 South Capitol St. SW in the third quarter of 2019.)

Those interested in learning more can attend a public launch event in the produce section at Giant on Wednesday, April 24,  from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh are expected to attend.