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Fresh Fruits & Veggies – For Free, Please

About Fresh

While working at the MGH Charlestown Healthcare Center in Boston, Josh Trautwein found that it was difficult for families to shop for fruits and vegetables after the local grocery store shut down for renovations. Lack of access to healthy staples is not a unique problem, especially over the past couple of years. According to a Nutrients study, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, food-insecure individuals consumed fewer of those goods. Research published in Health Affairs found that food-insecure children face higher risks for anemia, asthma, behavioral problems, and oral health issues. 

Photo Courtesy About Fresh

That is why in 2013, Trautwein and co-founder Annika Morgan launched the Fresh Truck, a retrofitted school bus that brings these types of affordable, good groceries to neighborhoods known as “food deserts” around Boston. The truck now shows up with volunteers at the same locations at the same times every week, providing 22 weekly opportunities for customers to shop in person or to pick up what they ordered through the Online Market, an option that was added in 2021. 

Photo Courtesy About Fresh

In line with the mission to address food insecurity and its health impacts, but with an added awareness that the healthcare system could play a role in covering the cost of essential ingredients in people’s diets, they launched a program called Fresh Connect under the new parent company About Fresh. Trautwein notes that “our health care system has been primarily oriented towards taking care of people only after they’re sick. Everything that we are trying to do is to keep people from not getting sick by making sure that they have access to healthy food.” 

Fresh Connect is a debit card prescribed by a healthcare professional to patients battling food insecurity and have medical conditions like diabetes or hypertension. The enrollment process into the cloud-based platform is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in that it protects each patient’s personal information. The Fresh Connect team mails a card to each enrolled patient and gives them an explanatory call. Then, let the shopping begin!

The card can be used at any of About Fresh’s retail partners, including grocery stores, farmers’ markets, and mobile markets like the Fresh Truck.

The patient-customer can ring up all their goods, and by swiping the Fresh Connect card first, it will recognize and cover the cost of the eligible fresh ingredients. A second form of payment can then be used for the remainder. 

Photo Courtesy About Fresh

Participants are offered a lot of personalized support, between outreach from the Fresh Connect team and access to a phone line where they can check their monthly balance and discover local places to spend it. Plus, they see a significant amount of flexibility, with the ability to choose the produce at the most convenient participating location. This will only increase as the company continues to expand. 

Nonprofit grocery store Daily Table started accepting Fresh Connect cards at their three locations in October 2021, with their entire fresh and nutritious inventory available for purchase through the program. In January 2022, northeastern chain Stop & Shop hopped on board as the first major retail partner and eventually accepted the card in the produce section at all 400 stores. The funding for these operations comes from Medicaid and healthcare organizations including Boston Medical Center. 

Stop & Shop was not the only conglomerate to see Fresh Connect’s value. In November 2022, the program made the jump to the mid-Atlantic. Giant Food started accepting the card at all of its seven locations in Washington, D.C., where “Fresh Connect participants can maximize their benefits by accessing free classes, consultations and additional resources offered by Giant’s Healthy Living Team,” according to Lisa Coleman, MS, RD, LDN, and director of healthy living. Plus, families with children aged 6 to 12 that are enrolled in D.C. Medicaid and participating in the nonprofit DC GreensChildren & Families Produce Rx (CFPRx) pilot can use the Fresh Connect card to buy fresh commodities at Giant stores in the district. The Department of Healthcare Finance of Washington, D.C., United Healthcare, and philanthropic organizations are funding that program. 

Photo Courtesy Giant Food

After the Stop & Shop deal, Fresh Connect developed multiple partnerships with medical providers. Employees at health centers affiliated with Community Care Cooperative (C3) started providing cards loaded with $100 per month to patients with medical issues like autism. Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), meanwhile, began giving one-year-long Fresh Connect cards to participants in a MassHealth plan called Tufts Health Together with CHA

These medical professionals benefit from access to monthly activity reports on patients’ individual and aggregate shopping, differences in usage among demographics, and the ability to assess the impact on patients’ health and food security.

“While our doctors and nurses do incredible work every day, the traditional health model has limits in addressing the social determinants of health. Thankfully, with creative partnerships like Fresh Connect, we are able to extend our services to provide different forms of assistance to those in need,” explains Wilfred McCalla, senior director of the population health leadership team at CHA.