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City offers vouchers for fruits, veggies

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Radman’s Produce Market manager Marwan Omar stocks his store in the Tenderloin with fresh fruits and vegetables. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco is booming with soaring rents and flourishing technology companies, but economic challenges persist for hundreds of thousands of residents who do not have the means to afford adequate nutritious food, putting them at risk for chronic diseases.

But a new city-funded voucher program is giving some residents up to $10 every week to buy fruits and vegetables.

As city officials have set a goal to reach what they call “food security” for every resident by 2020, the new EatSF program could go a long way in helping San Francisco achieve that milestone.

The voucher program for low-income residents was launched in April in the Tenderloin neighborhood with the help of $400,000 in city funds. Additionally $400,000 in funding was provided by the Hellman Foundation.

“Fruits and vegetables are just out of reach for so many people who are living in the Tenderloin,” said architect of the program Dr. Hilary Seligman, associate professor at UC San Francisco and faculty member at the Center for Vulnerable Populations.

“We know that people who eat healthy diets down the line are less likely to get heart attacks, less likely to get strokes and less likely to die.”

There are currently 400 households, comprising more than 700 residents, already enrolled and receiving weekly checks for the purchase of fruits and vegetables at participating neighborhood corner stores. Individuals who are suffering from health conditions like high-blood pressure can receive $5 weekly vouchers while families with children under the age of 5 can get $10 vouchers per week.

Participants are expected to stay enrolled for at least a year. The voucher is meant to supplement people’s incomes and incentivize healthier diets. Additionally, they provide revenue for the local stores and encourage the stocking of produce. Of those enrolled, nearly half are seniors living on Social Security income. Another 15 percent are also CalFresh recipients. On Oct. 1, the program is expected to expand to the Bayview neighborhood.

These communities were first selected because they are dense neighborhoods with high concentrations of low-income people. The City funding, exclusively for the vouchers, will help enroll residents for the next two years.

But the hope is to create a citywide voucher program by 2020 to address health disparities in San Francisco. “I always thought that it was a big gap in San Francisco that we could be such a food center and not have a fruit and vegetable voucher program,” Seligman said. “These types of programs are really effective. The hope is that by 2020 we will be citywide.”

In 2012, there were 67.8 million meals missed among 226,000 residents who were living below the 185 percent federal poverty line, according to a May Food Security in San Francisco report.

“Food insecurity may lead to behaviors that undermine health, such as skipping meals, binge eating, food rationing and eating more processed foods loaded with fats, sugars and salt due to lack of access to fruits and vegetables. Science links poor diet to greater risk for health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” according to a report by Shape Up San Francisco, a local health group.

Stephen Tennis, 67, who lives at a Tenderloin SRO hotel, is enrolled in the program and was recently shopping at Radman’s Produce Market on Turk Street near Jones Street. “I’m just thinking a lot more about eating healthier,” Tennis said, lamenting over the days when he used to drink two six-packs of Coca Cola a day. He said the voucher “nudges me to do the right thing. You cannot eat any better than fruits and vegetables.”

Tennis said as the cost of living continues to increase in San Francisco the voucher is only that much more significant. “It makes a difference. You don’t think that $20 a month is a lot but it really is, especially for me,” Tennis said.

Prices at the market included $3.99 for 32 ounces of strawberries or $1.99 for a mini watermelon.

Radman’s store manager Marwan Omar showed a stack of about 80 vouchers which he said were used at the store during the past week. There is a checklist noting what items they were used to buy. “We used to have the produce guy come twice a week. He’s here now five times a week,” Omar said.

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