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RIDEM announces Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program expansion

Ten thousand seniors eligible to receive preloaded benefit cards for use at local farmers markets

On March 7, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management announced it would be expanding the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. The program’s growth will provide an estimated 10,000 eligible seniors with access to fresh, locally grown produce and goods.

The SFMNP’s goal is to provide low-income seniors with reliable access to healthful and locally grown food, according to its website. The program also supports local farmers and producers by incentivizing seniors to consume from local vendors.

The expansion will provide SFMNP participants with $50 benefit cards that can be used at eligible farmers markets and farm stands. These cards will be distributed directly from senior centers beginning May 1, according to RIDEM’s press release, and will be valid until Nov. 30 of this year.

The program formerly functioned by offering produce boxes, sourced and packaged by Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Eligible participants received up to two free produce boxes per year that were either delivered directly to their homes or picked up at senior centers or meal sites. 


The program previously operated under a coupon model, where eligible seniors were provided with coupons to use at farmers markets, Eva Agudelo, director of value chain strategy at Farm Fresh, told The Herald. 

Under the expansion, eligible seniors can still opt for a produce box instead of the newly introduced benefit card. RIDEM will also be partnering with food delivery company DoorDash to deliver produce boxes to homebound seniors, according to the press release. 

The expansion follows “survey feedback from R.I.’s senior population, aiming for greater program impact per senior,” Maria Cimini, director of the R.I. Office of Healthy Aging, wrote in an email to The Herald. 

Cimini added that RIDEM received a $50,000 American Rescue Plan Act funding allocation to expand the SFMNP’s produce box benefits.

RIDEM is “working closely with the R.I. OHA to identify communities in need of assistance and to ensure a widespread and equitable distribution throughout the state,” according to the press release.

New approaches to battling food insecurity

According to Agudelo, the preloaded benefit card will enable seniors to go to farmer’s markets directly and make their own decisions about purchases.

She added that the changes solve several issues raised by previous SFMNP models. 

Under the coupon model, some seniors were not fully redeeming their benefits, which resulted in a waste of unused coupons as funds were returned to federal sources, according to Agudelo. The COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated this problem, as seniors faced difficulty redeeming their coupons during social distancing, she added. 


The box model was intended to be a temporary solution to this issue, as Farm Fresh could ensure that all of the program’s allocated funds were used to purchase produce. 

But the box model did not tailor to seniors’ individual preferences, Agudelo added. “We got some pushback that there were things in the boxes that seniors were not familiar with, or didn’t have the interest in or ability to cook,” she said. In response, Farm Fresh began to send recipes to recipient agencies to be distributed alongside the boxes, while adjusting the box to be more representative of items seniors might typically purchase at a grocery store. 

Local partnerships

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“One of the great things about RIDEM is that they recognize the benefit that community organizations who already have experience doing particular types of work can offer to the state or federal programs,” Agudelo said.

For Farm Fresh, the SFMNP presented a “great opportunity to work with a lot of different growers,” Agudelo said. The box model allowed the organization to strengthen several of its relationships with vendors and local farmers. “We could plan ahead and give farmers some income at the beginning of the season, so that they could provide items for the seniors,” she added.

Agudelo noted that OHA has helped Farm Fresh find accessible distribution locations and collect constructive feedback about the SFMNP.

RIDEM and Farm Fresh will also be partnering with food delivery company DoorDash through Project DASH, a program launched in 2018. Project DASH enables government agencies and non-profit organizations to use DoorDash’s delivery infrastructure to power community deliveries. 

DoorDash has also partnered with Farm Fresh’s Harvest Kitchen to support youth trainees, The Herald previously reported

Project Dash “leverages the same technology DoorDash’s commercial partners use to help food banks, food pantries and other nonprofits to deliver food and essential items to people experiencing food insecurity,” Daniel Riff, DoorDash senior manager of government and nonprofit, wrote in a message to The Herald.

DoorDash will help deliver produce boxes to homebound seniors to ensure that the new benefit card model does not cut off access to seniors who cannot visit farmers markets in person. They will take on SFMNP’s home delivery program in “late spring this year,” Riff wrote. 

Addressing food insecurity among low-income seniors “requires intentional partnerships between private and public champions,” Cimini wrote. Project DASH is a “wonderful example of how multi-layered efforts can ensure Rhode Islanders have access to nutritious foods that are essential in ensuring individuals can thrive and age healthily,” she added.

In the 2023 season, RIDEM and Farm Fresh distributed around 9,200 produce boxes to senior sites, such as senior centers, which would then distribute the boxes to seniors, Agudelo said. This year, the program intends to distribute around 1000 produce boxes directly to homebound individuals, she added. 

“We’re really glad to be able to see the program evolve so that seniors can get more choice in what they’re able to access, while still trying to meet the needs of homebound individuals who still will benefit from getting fresh produce,” Agudelo said.

“We recently heard from an older adult who enjoys making delicious salads as part of her meals and by having access to the program she is able to get fresh produce to do so,” Cimini wrote. “The SFMNP speaks to the ways in which we continue to foster communities that are accessible and age-welcoming spaces for all while supporting our farmers.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misattributed Maria Cimini's quotes. The Herald regrets the error.

Yael Sarig

Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.

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