WASHINGTON (AP) - "Oh, look!" said Loretta Haynesworth, 73, pointing to a collection of plump yellow and violet plums lined up in one of the stands on a recent weekend at the H Street Northeast farmers market. At the farmer's encouragement, Haynesworth, wearing a bright pink shirt with matching pink lipstick, took a bite.
"Mm-mm-mm-mm!" she exclaimed, nodding her gusto. "Let's take a box."
Courtesy of a new program introduced by the District of Columbia's Department of Health in partnership with farmers markets across the city, Haynesworth added a bag full of plums to her polka-dot grocery cart and turned her attention to the tomatoes.
Produce Plus provides low-income city residents with two $5 checks a week at certified District farmers markets and some community distribution sites to spend on fruit and vegetables this summer while the appropriated money lasts or until Sept. 30. That means residents like Haynesworth can come back and spend $10 the following week at H Street, or visit a different market within the same week and receive another $10 to use. The money, together with other incentives some farmers markets offer, can make for significant buying power.
The D.C. Council allotted $135,000 for the purchase of food through the program, aiming to increase access to produce for those who may struggle to find money in their budgets for fresh fruit and vegetables. Recipients of Supplemental Security Income; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; federal food assistance by way of SNAP, formerly known as food stamps; Medicaid; or WIC nutrition support for women, infants and children are eligible for Produce Plus.
City officials and farmers market organizers said that, so far, the program has been very popular.
"We have frequent fliers who go to two or three markets a week, people who line up to get them before we run out as the day goes on - it's lots and lots of new people," said Juliet Glass, 45, market and program director at FreshFarm Markets, a nonprofit organization that runs several of the city's farmers markets.
Last year, the city piloted a version of Produce Plus, budgeting about $50,000 for distribution to those who qualified for commodity supplements. Seniors used the program the most, Health Department officials said.
The 2013 program had the same goals as this year's, but because checks were mailed or directly distributed, it was less efficient, health officials said. Making the checks available at farmers markets and at community and health organizations increased awareness and access to the incentives, said Amelia Peterson-Kosecki, who heads the city's Nutrition and Physical Fitness Bureau.
Produce Plus expanded this year to include many more benefit recipients, such as those who qualify for Medicaid, which makes it a leader among such programs nationally, said Lauren Shweder Biel, the executive director of the sustainable food access nonprofit DC Greens.
When Haynesworth and her daughter-in-law, Valerie Haynesworth, 55, realized that the federal food coupons Loretta receives as a senior citizen could help her get a $10 credit on top of the incentives many markets already offer, such as doubling each dollar spent, they decided to make produce shopping a weekly outing.
"She used to shop at a regular grocery store, like everyone else," Valerie Haynesworth said. "Now, not as much. She comes here most of the time - them peaches are so good!"
The District has nearly 40 farmers markets; 23 can distribute and accept Produce Plus checks.
Xiao Huang, 35, walked around with her two young children in tow and a third in her belly. He heard from friends that the market accepts WIC. Huang, who lives in Chinatown, said the program helps her feed her children healthful food, even on a budget.
"It makes my heart feel safe to know there aren't preservatives or chemicals in these vegetables," Huang said in Mandarin through a translator.
At the corner of H and 13th streets, a balloon animal maker squeaked out inflatable play things for the children, and market-goers shared opinions on how to select the sweetest cantaloupe or learned what the heck a purple pepper might be.
"People always ask, 'What is it? What's it taste like?'?" said Kip Kelley, who worked his Full Cellar Farm stand with his 9-month-old son, Otto, strapped to his front. Customers who had been curious about the purple peppers have returned a week later with inventive dishes incorporating the new vegetable, he said. Some had discovered that purple peppers turn white when baked.
"They're amazing, magical peppers," Kelley joked. "I hope none of recipes are copyrighted, because I tell everybody the best ideas."
Produce Plus has benefited farmers by acting as an indirect subsidy for small farms. Kelley sometimes passes the largesse on to regular customers. If the produce weighs in at $7 worth, he sometimes throws in extra to top it off at $10 because customers can't receive change. Toward the end of the market, he may give away some of the squash he didn't sell.
"It's great for the farmers ... and it's become a significant portion of our revenue," Kelley said.
But there are a few improvements to be made to the program, Shweder Biel of DC Greens said. For one, the checks end with the city's fiscal year at the end of September, while the markets are still bustling. Glass said the mismatch has encouraged users to save some of their other benefits for holidays like Thanksgiving and use Produce Plus to add more fresh produce for the summer.
Glass said paperwork could be streamlined to increase the speed with which checks are dispensed at the bright orange food assistance tents, although she understood the importance of accountability for the money.
Shweder Biel said that she and other food activists are waiting to see the effects of a national farm act that could bolster the program. The act, passed in February, decreased the amount of money for traditional food stamp-type assistance but increased the amount available to fund nutrition incentives at farmers markets.
It's exciting to see the local government commit to being a partner in making healthful food more accessible, Shweder Biel said.
"In the city, there's incredible need and incredible possibility, and we feel like anything is possible right now," she said.