Fresh pickings: prescribing produce, not pills


by Ruxandra Helici

Posted on August 10, 2018

Fresh pickings: prescribing produce, not pills

Detroit-based prescription service is not for drugs, but for fresh fruit and vegetables. Redeemable at local farmers’ markets, it puts healthy produce in the hands of the people who need it most – from low-income patients with chronic diseases to pregnant women.

Fresh Prescription is a programme designed to boost access to fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables.

Low-income patients, often people with chronic diseases, those who look after young children, and pregnant women, are referred to the scheme by their doctors. After being assessed, they are given prescriptions totaling between US$40 and US$80 (£29-£57), which they can ‘cash in’ at farmers’ markets or grocers for four lots of fresh produce. Alongside the ingredients, they are given advice about nutrition and choosing and storing vegetables, as well as cookery demonstrations and tastings.

“It reinforces food as medicine, rather than just relying on pharmaceuticals,” says Pike, the development director at the Community Health and Social Services Center in south-west Detroit. 

Since 2013, the scheme has been giving patients fresh, locally grown produce, while benefiting small and medium-sized farmers, helping keep money within the local economy.

It links the healthcare system and the food system, a bridge that appears much-needed. Research shows that 60 million Americans struggle to put healthy food on the table. Diet has now surpassed smoking as the number one cause of death and disease in the US, prompting $1tn (£700m) to be spent there each year on diet-related illness.

In general, Detroit has a higher than average poverty rate and a fragmented transportation system that limits people’s access to healthy foods,” says Simpson. The scheme has shown promise as a way to reduce diet-related medical problems such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension. 

After being signed up to the scheme, 84 percent said their consumption of fresh produce had gone up, and 63 percent tried new fruits and vegetables as a result. More than two-thirds of participants reported spending their own money on fresh produce in addition to prescription dollars. 

The model’s cultural sensitivity plays a role in its success, believes Maricruz Moya, who works at Covenant Community Care. “I spent part of my childhood in south-west Detroit and I remember the challenges people faced when it came to food,” says Moya. “It’s exciting to see programmes like Fresh Prescription come into this community. In our culture, for example, tortilla and bread are very important, and the scheme doesn’t say ‘don’t eat those’, but it’s about incorporating healthy behaviours too.”

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