Wallace has a new way to help. On June 6, the clinic began writing “fruit and vegetable prescriptions” to help cover the cost of fresh produce. Thirty-five families will receive vouchers for $1 per family member per day — $112 every four weeks for a family of four — to spend at any of five District farmers markets: the Columbia Heights Community Marketplace, Mount Pleasant, 14th and U,
Bloomingdale and Glover Park. The hope is 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.
In the fight against obesity, many solutions are more stick than carrot: taxes on sodas, bans of junk food in schools and, most recently, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban the sale of sugary drinks in servings larger than 16 ounces.
The produce prescription program, in contrast, is the brainchild of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization that specializes in incentive programs to encourage healthful eating and lure new dollars to farmers markets. (Its hallmark initiative is its Double Value Coupon program, which doubles the value of food assistance benefits, such as food stamps and WIC, if shoppers spend their money at farmers markets.)
The District is the latest to launch produce prescriptions. The program, now in its third year, already has shown remarkable results: Of the 1,200 participants in six towns and cities in the Northeast, 66 percent said they ate more fruits and vegetables as a result of the program and 38 percent improved their body mass index, a standard measure used to estimate healthy body weight. The program brought new customers to farmers markets. More than half of families that received fruit-and-vegetable prescriptions had never, or rarely, been to a farmers market.
“Our goal is nothing less than to prove that eating more fruits and vegetables makes people more healthy,” says Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave’s founder and chief executive. “We want to show that by funding these programs, we can help reduce what we spend on health care.”
Prescribing food as a cure dates at least to ancient Greece, where the physician Hippocrates counseled: Let food be thy medicine. In the 1960s, Jack Geiger, a doctor in the Mississippi Delta, persuaded local grocery stores to fill prescriptions for food for his malnourished patients. But over the past half-century, the connection between diet and health has been overshadowed by the health-care industry’s high-tech, and reimbursable, treatments.