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Voucher Program Makes Healthy Eating Accessible for Food-Insecure Individuals

CEO Tinh Phung
As soon as Joseph Angelo enrolled in the Vouchers 4 Veggies program, he discovered a simple way to replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables. Angelo, who has Type 2 diabetes, admits that he...

Laurie Clinton uses vouchers for produce through the Vouchers 4 Veggies program in a photo taken before the pandemic. (Photo by Constanza Hevia)

As soon as Joseph Angelo enrolled in the Vouchers 4 Veggies program, he discovered a simple way to replace processed foods with fresh fruits and vegetables. Angelo, who has Type 2 diabetes, admits that he often succumbed to comfort foods like cookies and ice cream. However, with the help of the vouchers, he found himself making healthier choices.

"I used to rationalize processed foods over healthier options," Angelo explains. "When faced with a $2.50 bag of cookies or $2.50 worth of apples, I'd sometimes opt for the cookies. But now, the vouchers limit me to purchasing only fruits and vegetables, which has been a game-changer."

As an unemployed resident of San Francisco, Angelo's tight budget often made it challenging to prioritize healthier food options. However, since joining the Vouchers 4 Veggies program, he has mostly used the vouchers to buy fruits such as apples, peaches, and plums. He's also started incorporating vegetables like onions and mushrooms into his meals.

Launched in 2015, Vouchers 4 Veggies, also known as EatSF, is an initiative affiliated with the Center for Vulnerable Populations at the University of California, San Francisco. It aims to help individuals with limited incomes access nutritious food. The program has expanded and been replicated in other locations, including Los Angeles, Cumberland, Virginia, and Boulder, Colorado.

Enrollment in the program is facilitated through partnering community-based organizations and clinics. Participants receive monthly vouchers worth $20 to $40 for six months, specifically designated for purchasing fruits and vegetables. To scale the program to a larger grocer network, a produce debit card is currently in the planning phase.

Excitingly, the program recently received funding from the American Heart Association's Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund, which supports community-based organizations working towards addressing health inequities.

Improving diet quality is crucial in reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health conditions. Research indicates that an estimated 11 million deaths worldwide can be attributed to poor diets each year. Additionally, encouraging healthier eating habits could save the United States over $50 billion annually in healthcare costs associated with Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other heart disease and stroke risk factors, according to a 2019 study published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

"The primary challenge lies in financial constraints," explains Cissie Bonini, the executive director of Vouchers 4 Veggies.

However, once participants have the financial means to acquire fruits and vegetables, they immediately notice improvements in their overall well-being. Bonini highlights that individuals who start incorporating healthier foods into their diets during their time in the program are more likely to continue these habits even after the program ends.

Joseph Angelo is a prime example of this success. Previously hesitant to seek assistance from food banks, he now regularly collects weekly boxes of fresh produce to sustain his commitment to non-processed foods. Angelo's weight has stabilized, and his diabetes is more manageable since transitioning from a diet consisting of 90% processed foods to one that is 90% fresh and nutritious.

Cissie Bonini is the executive director of Vouchers 4 Veggies. (Photo courtesy of Vouchers 4 Veggies)

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