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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

New York Docs ‘Prescribe’ Fruits and Veggies

Two New York hospitals have become the latest testing ground for a project to curb diet-related diseases with fresh produce.

shoppers buying produce at a farmer's market in the Bronx

Photo: courtesy of Wholesome Wave

Shoppers buying fresh produce at the Lincoln Hospital Greenmarket in the Bronx, where patients can swap 'prescription' vouchers for healthy food.

Doctor’s Orders

How about a trip to the farmers market instead of the pharmacy?

As a part of a national pilot project called Vegetables Rx (FVRx), that’s the remedy doctors in two New York hospitals are prescribing for children who are at risk for medical problems like stroke and type-two diabetes.

When participating doctors see patients who are at risk for obesity, they call the whole family in for monthly meetings with a nutritionist and give them vouchers to buy fresh produce at farmer’s markets.

“Doctors are an important authority in communicating what is healthy in somebody’s life,” said Alyson Abrami, farmer’s market program manager for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “The hope is that if a doctor is prescribing a healthy diet, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, that people will be more likely to take part and actually try to make some behavioral changes at home.”

A Tasty Deal

Patients at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx and Harlem Hospital get vouchers called “Health Bucks” that can be redeemed at any one of the city’s 142 participating farmers markets. The Health Department has offered these vouchers to low-income residents since 2005, and in 2008 started giving two extra dollars in coupons for every five dollars in food stamps spent at farmers markets — a 40 percent boost – to help families stretch their benefits.

“People are realizing the quality differences that farmers markets provide. Not only are the fruits and vegetables the freshest that you’re going to get anywhere, and the variety much greater than you’ll find in any supermarket, but it provides a safe, fun environment for families to shop,” Abrami said.

One in ten New Yorkers report eating a completely fruit and veggie-free diet every day, according to the city’s health department. In low income areas like the Bronx, only half of the population eats a serving of fruits and vegetables daily. More than half of all adults in New York City are overweight or obese, and one out of five kindergartners are obese.

City officials recently concluded that an obesity epidemic is to blame for New York’s 33 percent increase in type-2 diabetes over the last decade.

Famously, the city has tried to tackle the problem with a crackdown on sugary drinks and calorie counts on menus.

Keeping it Local

Since 2010, the FVRx project has involved 760 adults and 815 children in health clinics across seven states and Washington, D.C. But Wholesome Wave, the nonprofit behind the FVRx initiative, has another agenda beyond tackling obesity.

FVRx program manager Catherine Luu said her organization wants to support small, local farmers and sustainable agriculture. “This is a good time for the local food movement,” she said. “[The FVRx program] definitely brings a different client base to the farmers markets, and we’re able to bring community members that may not have previously had access to these markets and to connect them with these local farmers.”

Luu says participating doctors have seen tangible results from the program. While physicians typically recommend healthier food choices for people at risk for obesity and related illnesses, it’s much harder to get patients to comply.

“They are thrilled and excited at the increased support to be able to reach their community members, and provide incentives that can supplement their advice.”

According to the organization’s data, 37.8 percent of participating children decreased their body mass index, and more than half of the families reported an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. They’re still gathering data from the two new hospital programs in New York.

Read More:

  • New York Hands Out A Prescription For Fruits And Vegetables (Fast Company)
  • ‘Obesity Epidemic’ Blamed For NYC Diabetes Spike (Metro)
  • District’s Needy Get Fruit And Vegetable Rx (Washington Post)

 

Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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