Doctors prescribing fresh fruit and vegetables

Fruits and Vegtables (Jonathan Schaer/CNN)

(CNN) — Bad cholesterol, depression, high blood pressure; these are all conditions that often prompt a trip to the pharmacy. But now, physicians are administering a different treatment entirely: produce. Doctors at select clinics across the country are writing some obese patients “prescriptions” for fruits and vegetables.

The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program provides daily $1 subsidies to buy produce at local farmers markets. FVRx, as it is also known, is funded through Wholesome Wave, a non-profit organization which operates from private donations. Each member of a family gets the $1 prescription so, for example, a family of five would end up getting $35 per week to spend on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Janet Lopez is a cashier at a sporting goods store and lives in Washington, D.C. with her two children, brother and mother. She and her family are part of the Unity Health Care clinic’s prescription program and have been buying the subsidized produce since May. She said they all have been eating more fruits and vegetables because of the program.

“It is an encouragement because now I actually see that my kids love all of this stuff and before I couldn’t get it because it wasn’t cheap. Not only that but I also didn’t know how healthy it actually is,” Lopez said.

In addition to subsidies, FVRx has patients meet with their physicians to check up on their health including their height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index. The program also offers exercise and cooking classes.

“A lot of kids are picking up on how to eat vegetables and realizing they’re not actually yucky, it’s actually, ‘Oh, it’s delicious,’ because they’re learning to cook it themselves,” Lopez said.

And organizers said they use this family oriented approach because even if the whole family isn’t obese, they don’t want one member of the family eating fruits and vegetables while the rest just keep eating junk.

“When we look at these types of health interventions they’re really most successful if the entire family can make a lifestyle change rather than cherry picking who in the family can eat more fruits and vegetables while the rest of the people sit at the table and eat instant rice with a can of condensed soup stirred in,” said Michel Nischan, CEO of Wholesome Wave.

The program exists at twelve sites in seven states and the District of Columbia. It started in 2010 and has already helped over 1000 people buy healthier food.

The program targets areas where fresh produce may not be readily available or is too expensive for impoverished families. The high price ends up being a double bind; people don’t buy the produce because the price is so high and stores don’t buy large quantities of produce because people don’t buy as much, thus increasing the price.

“Fruit and vegetable producers don’t receive any subsidies right now. It’s corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soy. So fruits and vegetables, the things we’re supposed to be eating five servings a day of are the foods that receive little to no government support,” Nischan said.

Nischan said this program ultimately produces a savings for the health care system because he believes if people eat more healthily, they’re less likely to suffer from chronic conditions. Healthy food costs less than the medicine and treatment they would require in the future.

“If you advise somebody to change to see a nutritionist to change their diet, they skip the nutritionist visit. You don’t see them again for two years until their feet hurt really bad and they’ve been vomiting for three weeks and they can’t understand because they don’t have the flu and they go back to find they have Type-II Diabetes for over a year,” Nischan said. “Now we can give them free drugs because our society won’t allow someone to die (but) the drugs are more expensive than the food.”

Though the program in D.C. is new, people like Lopez are already noticing a difference in their lives. “I feel more energetic,” she said. “I don’t feel as tired anymore and I see the same thing in my kids.”

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