Food

Produce prescriptions hold potential to change consumer, community health

(BPT) – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

Whether a quote often attributed to Greek physician Hippocrates or a rhyme many of us learned in our youth, the connection between the foods we eat and their effects on our physical health has always been generally understood but not necessarily followed.

In recent years, this disconnect has resulted in dramatically increased rates of diet-related diseases, including obesity and diabetes. Driving both conditions is poor diet, which annually contributed to more than 14.1 million cases of type 2 diabetes alone.

Since the pandemic, researchers have found Americans’ physical and mental health has fallen, with more individuals reporting diabetes diagnoses, less healthy eating, and other health problems. Roughly two-thirds of Americans are currently overweight or obese.

These diseases burden our healthcare system, where 8 out of 10 healthcare dollars are spent on chronic, preventable diseases.

In response to these epidemics of diet-related disease, interventions like produce prescriptions, or Produce Rx, have been introduced to some health care providers and the communities they serve.

People who care about their health have wanted to know — what is a produce prescription?

A patient gets an actual prescription from their doctor for a fruit and vegetable benefit on a card or voucher that can be redeemed at a participating grocery store. This benefit is typically refillable monthly and is covered by health insurance at no or low cost to the patient. Currently there are 250 produce prescription programs operating in 38 states.

More than 150 million Americans are covered by federal insurance programs and if embedded as a covered benefit into the federal health system, produce prescriptions could reach millions of eligible Americans.

While some critics say produce prescriptions are merely a passing trend, data exists that show Produce Rx is both economically feasible and effective, as well as much more natural than a traditional prescription from a doctor.

Tufts University found produce prescriptions for 40- to 79-year-olds facing diabetes could prevent 296,000 cases of cardiovascular disease over their lifetimes.

Another study found that produce prescription program participants consumed more fruits and vegetables and reduced food insecurity. They also self-reported health status among both adults and children and found the program resulted in a wide array of improvements across several metabolic health markers, boosting long-term health.

From a community perspective, a nonprofit in North Carolina took a $500,000 produce prescription grant and turned it into $8 million in redemption of fruits and vegetables in a little over a year. Lower-income consumers in the impacted market are now doubling their spend on fruits and vegetables.

The International Fresh Produce Association, a global organization leading the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, is working to scale produce prescriptions on several fronts.

As part of IFPA’s work to support the U.S. National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health, the association developed a video distributed to medical schools and more than 5 million student/medical professionals worldwide to help them understand how they can prescribe fruits and vegetables to their patients (in addition to any medications needed) to manage symptoms of chronic disease.

Produce prescription programs hold great promise to help more consumers eat more fresh fruits and vegetables to optimize their health and enjoy lives filled with vitality and vibrancy.

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