New York Patients receive Fruit and Veggie Prescriptions

Thomas Farley, city health commissioner, holds up one of the coupons that doctors can “prescribe” to encourage patients to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Thomas Farley, city health commissioner, holds up one of the coupons that doctors can “prescribe” to encourage patients to eat more fruits and vegetables.

It’s no secret that most Americans do not eat nearly enough fruits and vegetables. This problem is especially acute in lower income groups. The growing obesity problem is also no secret, with one third of Americans now qualifying as overweight and another one third as obese. It’s here, as with other health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, that plant foods form a very powerful part of the solution. In fact, vegetarians have a 45% decreased risk of being overweight or obese, and vegans are, on average, 30 pounds thinner than meat eaters with a rather desirable BMI of only about 23. This dietary advantage is especially true of those consuming unprocessed plant foods and produce to be found at farmers’ markets.

In an effort to get disadvantaged New Yorkers to eat a little healthier, the city is launching a pilot program at two hospitals that will have New Yorkers receive “prescriptions” that can be used to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, and other plant foods such as whole grain corn on the cob, beans and even nuts.

Patients will receive Health Bucks, $2 coupons that can be used at any of the 142 farmers markets across the city, including farmers’ markets set up at the hospitals themselves. Doctors will then monitor the patients in the pilot program over the course of four months.  Patients will have their weight and body mass index evaluated by their doctor, as well receive counseling on healthy eating.

The program, part of a national campaign to help doctors change the eating habits of their patients, will focus on low-income, high-risk patients who desperately need to change their diet. This program is now being launched at Harlem Hospital in Manhattan and Lincoln Medical Center in the South Bronx.

Dr. Katherine Szema, chief of pediatrics at Lincoln, said the program aims to get parents and their kids to eat at least one more serving of fruits or vegetables each day. “Kids usually kind of dread coming to the doctor to talk about their obesity,” she said. “But this is a positive thing. They look forward to it.” If the “prescriptions” are found successful in lowering obesity among the 140 patients in the pilot program, the city will look to expand the program to other low-income neighborhoods.

“Each dollar invested in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program nourishes public hospital patients and their families, boosts revenue at farmers markets, and supports overall community health,” Deputy Mayor Gibbs said at a press conference. “Farmers markets support the City’s efforts to keep communities fit by providing healthy and affordable dietary options in a localized setting.”

A recent study by Swedish researchers, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that people who ate fewer than five servings of fruit and vegetables a day were more likely to die early.  “A food environment full of processed foods full of fat, sugar and salt is contributing to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer and other chronic diseases,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said in a statement. According to Farley, about one in 10 New Yorkers don’t eat any fruits or vegetables in a given day, but in the Bronx, that number is a shocking five in 10 adults. “The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program is a creative approach that, with the inclusion of “Health Bucks”, will enable at-risk patients to purchase the fruits and vegetables that will help them stay healthy…. This is probably going to prevent an awful lot of disease in the long term” said Dr. Farley.

Bronx resident Tammy Futch says she’s lost weight, and her 11-year-old son has dropped 20 pounds since joining the program. “He was one that never ate vegetables. He used to be a McDonald’s baby,” she said. Tammy Futch, who lives in the Patterson Houses in Mott Haven, said the program was a huge success for her shrinking, 11-year-old son, Ty-J. Her son says his fast-food favorites were replaced with beets, corn, carrots, strawberries and avocados.

The FVRx, short for Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program, was started by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit that supports small and mid-sized farms in Massachusetts, Maine, California and Rhode Island. Last year, the program was expanded to include 12 sites in seven more states, including New York and the District of Columbia. Lincoln Medical Center and Harlem Hospital Center are the first hospitals to join the program, according to Wholesome Wave.

Long known for serving some of the unhealthiest food to both patients and staff alike, this program comes as a long awaited improvement in hospitals’ recognition of the power of plant foods to prevent and even reverse a number of common diseases.

While your local hospital may not be giving out coupons for the local farmers’ market just yet, there’s nothing to stop you from including more healthy fruits and vegetables into your diet yourself.  Check out your nearest farmers’ market, and enjoy the summer’s bounty.