Yes, the doctor is forever telling us and certainly our kids to “eat right.” A nonprofit, Wholesome Wave — which advocates for incentive programs to promote healthy eating and seeks to bring more people to farmers’ markets – has created Fruit and Vegetable Rx, a program that provides prescriptions for, yes, fruits and vegetables.
Fruit and Vegetable Rx provides its participants – overweight and obese children and pregnant women from low-income communities — with FVRx prescriptions. These are redeemable only for locally grown produce; their value is $1 a day for every family member (so a family of four would receive about $112 for four week). Participants can use the FVRx prescriptions at participating farmers markets at least every two weeks for four to six months. While enrolled in the program, participants meet with primary care providers and nutritionists monthly to discuss health eating and also to have their blood pressure, BMI (body mass index) and weight checked.
The idea behind the program is, says the Washington Post, that a “medical endorsement of healthful eating, plus cash to buy ingredients, will help families make real changes to the way they shop and eat.” Indeed, physicians going back to the legendary ancient Greek Hippocrates have been prescribing food as “medicine.” Fresh produce is notoriously difficult to obtain in poor neighborhoods and the program provides incentives to buy and eat it, while also benefiting farmers’ markets.
FVRx Prescriptions: Promising Results
After three years in operation, an overview of the program notes some promising results. 1,222 individuals (581 adults and 541 children) from vulnerable families were enrolled in the 2011 program. Many saw improved health outcomes, with 38.1% having decreased BMI over a four-month intervention period. FVRx participants also said their fruit and vegetable consumption increased while the farmers markets that participated had an average increase in revenue of $8,129, as well as an “influx of new and repeat customers.”
In the Washington Post, Michael Lambke describes what happened after he started the program in the poor, rural community of Skowhegan, Maine:
In 2011, 76 percent of patient families attended sessions at the clinic at least three times and made 10 trips to the farmers market, spending more than $5,000 on fresh produce.
Anecdotally, the program is inspiring families to embrace other aspects of a healthful lifestyle, Lambke says. One family got friends to join the program. Another tried out a new walking trail. “The best quote was a kid who came back to me and said that the thing he liked about the program was that his parents played with him more,” Lambke says. “Oh, man. That was awesome.”
As Tom Laskawy writes on Grist, the “the fact is that most supermarkets are designed to get consumers to buy processed and/or calorie-dense foods.” Restricting participants only to use the FVRx prescriptions directs them to buy healthy food while also boosting the local economy.
Plus, there is the secondary benefit of introducing children to farmers’ market, so they can learn that all food does not originate in the aisles of national supermarket chains (or fast-food restaurants).
Is This Program Too Coercive?
FVRx prescriptions alone can’t solve the obesity epidemic, Laskawy reminds, or the nation’s health woes. I’m sure some will argue that such FVRx prescriptions are coercive, deprive participants of the right to buy whatever they please and limit their personal freedom, the sort of “anti-nanny-state” arguments raised about New York City Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on large-size sodas.
As a mother, all I can say is that, left to his own devices, my teenage son reaches for the French fries and salty snacks. With a little parental nudging in the past year, he started eating one slice of an apple per day; now, he routinely reaches for the fruit I leave out for him, with good results. Sometimes you just need that nudge to get started in a healthier direction.
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Photo by Mr. T in DC