Is Providing Free Fruits and Vegetables as ‘Prescriptions’ Beneficial for Health? Research Suggests Yes

By iMedix
Updated 2024-03-26 15:19:19 | Published 2024-03-26 15:08:25
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A highly realistic illustration depicting the concept of providing free fruits and vegetables as 'prescriptions' for health

The concept of prescribing fruits and vegetables as a means to improve health is gaining traction in the U.S. with numerous programs offering free produce to participants. These initiatives, known as produce prescription programs, are designed to address heart disease and obesity-related health issues by supplying free fruit and vegetable bundles regularly, home delivery of fresh produce, or financial assistance for produce purchases.

Carol Grand, a 63-year-old Tulsa, Oklahoma retiree, participated in one such program, FreshRx Oklahoma, after being diagnosed with diabetes in late 2022. Though her doctor initially prescribed medication, Grand was eager to explore alternatives. The program, targeting individuals with diabetes, provides biweekly bags of local fruits and vegetables along with recipes and offers quarterly health screenings. Grand experienced significant health improvements, including reduced blood sugar levels and a 50-pound weight loss, shifting from a diet rich in junk food to healthier options like sautéed tofu and sweet peppers.

Recent research underscores these programs' effectiveness. For instance, the Recipe4Health program in Alameda County, California, part of a study presented at the American Heart Association’s scientific sessions, involved delivering 16 weeks of free produce and conducting group medical visits on nutrition and exercise. The study focused on over 5,000 middle-aged patients with chronic health conditions or food insecurity at Federally Qualified Health Centers. These centers received electronic ‘prescriptions' for the program, which led to significant health improvements like lowered non-HDL cholesterol levels among participants.

Another research project evaluated the impact of nine produce programs run by Wholesome Wave on about 1,800 children and 2,000 adults with health risk factors. The participants received monthly financial aid to buy produce, which improved adults' blood sugar control, blood pressure, and body mass indexes. Kurt Hager, co-author of the study, highlighted the potential of these programs as integral to clinical care.

Estimates show that produce prescriptions for millions of adults with diabetes and food insecurity could prevent hundreds of thousands of cardiovascular events and save billions in health care costs. These programs gained prominence following the 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Hager pointed out the shift towards sustainable funding models, like health insurance coverage for such programs, and the increasing use of Medicaid waivers in various states for health service innovations.

Additional trials in Southern California and New York City further affirm the benefits of produce prescriptions, showing improvements in blood sugar levels, food security, and stress reduction among recipients. The New York trial, for example, provided fresh produce to families and noted an increase in the variety of foods consumed by children. Roopa Kalyanaraman Marcello, the study's director, emphasized the importance of early childhood interventions in forming healthy eating habits.

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