Healthy Eating

Doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of pills

“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

The Greek physician Hippocrates may have been way ahead of his time in extolling the health-giving virtues of a sensible diet. In an age of obesity and food deserts, examining the connection between our diets and our health has never been more important.

We know that eating more fruits and vegetables can improve our general health, reduce our risk of disease, and maybe even make us more attractive, optimistic and more likely to quit smoking too.

Fighting the food desert

But you can’t have a serious discussion about why we should eat more fruits and vegetables without also looking at the reasons why many of us do not.

Nowhere is this conversation more important than in poor communities, where fresh foods can be hard to come by, and where fast-food joints and convenience stores proliferate.

It’s for this reason that many programs are exploring ways to increase access to fresh, healthy and local foods – often finding ways to support farms and farmers markets in the process.

Prescribing fresh food

fruits and vegetables From radishes and peas to strawberries and spinach, many of these brightly colored foods are believed to prevent or fight cancer. (Photo: Rimma Bondarenko/Shutterstock)

Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit, has been pioneering the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx), which sees doctors and medical professionals literally prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income overweight and obese children who may be at risk of developing diet-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

The families of children enrolled in the program receive “prescriptions” (essentially coupons) which they can then use at participating farmers markets to buy the food they need for the week. At the launch of an FVRx program at two New York hospitals, New York Health Commissioner Thomas Farley suggested to reporters that food might provide a direct alternative to some of the pharmaceuticals that are typically prescribed to overweight children:

“This is probably going to prevent an awful lot of disease in the long term than the medicines we tend to write prescriptions for.”

Significant Increases in fruit and vegetable consumption

Initial results suggest that Farley may be onto something. According to the Wholesome Wave website, an analysis of the 2012 program suggested that 55.3 percent of participants reported an increase in their fruit and vegetable consumption, and 37.8 percent of child participants showed a decreased Body Mass Index (the metric used for measuring obesity) since enrolling in the program.

Another study conducted by a team of doctors and public health experts in 2019 also revealed similar results.

Researchers analyzed data from a nationwide group of adults between the ages of 35 and 80 and separated them into two groups: one where Medicare and Medicaid covered 30 percent of the cost of fruits and vegetables and the other where they covered whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood as well as produce. Their results showed that the first group could prevent up to 1.93 million cardiovascular events and potentially prevent 350,000 deaths a year. Similarly for the second group, 3.28 million cardiovascular events could be prevented, which could save 620,000 lives.

“The fruit and vegetable program has been implemented through some nonprofit and private insurance programs, showing an increased intake of fruits and vegetables and an improvement in measurable outcomes such as [the ingestion of] glucose, cholesterol, and triglycerides,” the study’s co-author Yujin Lee told Insider. “However, programs like these have not been implemented at scale, nor evaluated for cost-effectiveness.”

Supporting the farm economy

Farmer advocates are also huge fans of the program.

Kayla Ringelheim, market manager at Woonsocket Farmers Market in Rhode Island, even credits the initiative as playing a significant role in the commercial viability of the market by bringing in customers who would never have otherwise shopped there:

“FVRx helped transform the Woonsocket market into one that was vibrant & economically viable for participating farmers.”

A broad range of initiatives

FVRx is by no means the only initiative aimed at bridging the gap between farms and farmers markets and the food insecure. The USDA has been working hard to get SNAP benefits accepted at farmers markets nationwide, and in my neck of the woods in North Carolina, a program called Farmer Foodshare is collecting food from farmers markets and delivering it to community groups, churches and food pantries – paying a fair price to farmers wherever possible. (Disclosure: I have worked with Farmer Foodshare on their branding and communications.)

Ultimately, we’ll never fix issues like hunger or obesity without building a fairer, more resilient food system where everyone has access to fresh, healthy food – and where farmers can make a decent living growing it. Fruit and vegetable prescriptions are just one way of working toward this goal – combining the notions of preventative medicine and sustainable community development in a win-win situation for all.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in August 2013.

Doctors prescribe fruits and vegetables instead of pills

You can fight obesity, reduce hunger and support your local farmers — all at the same time.


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