We all know that we’d be healthier if we ate more fruits and vegetables. Your doctor may have suggested that. But few of us actually do anything about it. But would that change if you actually got a prescription that covered the cost of fresh, locally-grown produce? That was the question at the heart of a recent pilot project on Cape Cod, called FlavoRx.
Dr. Kumara Sidhartha, a physician with the Emerald Physicians group, and Sustainable CAPE (the Center for Agricultural Preservation and Education) teamed up to offer patients at risk of dietary diseases prescriptions worth $30 each week at the Orleans Farmer's Market.
The pilot project involved just eighteen patients and was really intended to answer questions about the feasibility of creating collaborations outside the traditional healthcare system. It did that (the answer is yes, it's possible), and also produced some dramatically patient testimonials, as well.
"Unbelievable, life-changing,” is how Max, a patient from Dennis, decribes the outcome. He says the nutrition and cooking education he received has allowed him to reduce his food costs by more than a third.
“I’m shocked that every time I go now and buy food, my bill is at the most $60, and I fill for the week,” said Max. “And healthwise, when I moved back to the U.S., I gained forty pounds. And now I’ve almost lost all of it without even adding exercise.”
Sidhartha says that most of the patients who received farmer’s market prescriptions showed improvements in health indicators, like cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
While the results don’t surprise him, they do highlight what a problem Cape Cod has when it comes to the availability of healthy produce. Barnstable county ranks last in the state of Massachusetts for food access.
“There are a bunch of factors that go into that. There’s income, there’s transportation, there’s food distribution – how far way are you from a store,” explained Francie Randolph, founding director of Sustainable CAPE. “When we say Barnstable County is number one in having limited access to healthy food, that basically means that there is a population who are low income that don’t live close to a grocery store.”
Randolph says programs like FlavoRx and incentive programs at some Cape farmer’s markets that double SNAP cards or WIC coupons are important steps toward addressing the access problem. And they’re popular, drawing lines of people waiting to collect their benefits.
“It’s an exciting development, but also it’s a little bit scary because it shows there’s a very real need,” said Randolph. “And that’s what we’re trying to address as a community, is how to take care of each other.”
While finding funding for programs like FlavoRx may seem like a challenge, Randolph says those costs are dwarfed by the $200 billion spent each year on on obesity-related healthcare in the U.S.
Sidhartha and Randolph are planning to expand the FlavoRx program to a larger patient population this summer to solidify evidence of the health benefits, and begin figuring out how to build this kind of program into a policy framework.