A Prescription For Healthier Eating

Oct 16, 2012

The obesity epidemic in the U.S. has left the medical community perplexed about how to get people to change their eating habits. Government is opting for public policy alterations like healthier school lunches. New York City has a new ban on selling large sodas or sugary beverages at restaurants and sports events.

But a Connecticut-based group is trying another way – literally giving people prescriptions for fruits and vegetables. And it seems to be working.

YG: "3, 4, 5 ,6, 7 ,8 ,9. Thank you very much. Have a great day."

Yesika Gonzalez is buying produce at the farmers’ market in the Fair Haven section of New Haven. What she’s counting are turquoise colored wooden tokens with the initials FVRX. They stand for the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program.

It’s the brainchild of Bridgeport-based Wholesome Wave, started by Connecticut chef Michel Nischan, who many people know best for his Westport restaurant collaboration with the late actor Paul Newman. Wholesome Wave’s programs are designed to help underserved communities nationwide get access to affordable locally grown, healthy food.

FVRX is in its second year of pilot programs, and its first year in Connecticut.

Nischan says it brings together healthcare professionals and farmers markets to help overweight or obese children or pregnant women who often can’t afford pricier fruits and vegetables by giving them a prescription for produce and money to buy it - a dollar a day per family member.  

Nischan: "I have two children with diabetes so I understand you can’t just change the diet of one person living in a family of seven or two people living in a family of seven if they have a condition that relies on a lifestyle change. It’s only going to be successful if the whole family participates."

For Gonzalez, it means $28 a week for her and her three children, even though her 11-year old son Ian is the patient. The whole family attends monthly appointments at the Fair Haven Community Health Center where a clinician checks his body mass index and teaches the family about exercise and diet, including how to prepare more healthful meals than the foods they’re used to eating.

Gonzalez sighs: "Junk food!"

JES: "What kind of food do you make now?"

Gonzalez: "Grilled chicken with some vegetables and some salad."

Gonzalez and other mothers using FVRX say so far their children haven’t lost weight, but they haven’t gained any either. While the New Haven outcomes haven’t been tallied yet, Nischan says Wholesome Wave does have data from its first year programs in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and California.

Nischan: "We’re very happy to report that 38% of all participants lost BMI in a population that 100% were expected to gain BMI. In a 4-month intervention, that’s near historic."

JES: "How effective could it be if you didn’t have that initial financial incentive?"

Nischan: "I don’t think it can."

But Nischan likes to remind people that FVRX is a prescription and like most prescriptions, is temporary until the problem is solved.

Another concern is that just running the program during farmers’ market season is too short. Elizabeth Magenheimer is the family nurse practitioner who works with the more than 30 FVRX families in New Haven. And while she calls the program brilliant...

Magenheimer: "I get the point that tit’s not a dole out forever, but if we think about it in relationship to those diseases which will be costing us a fortune with blindness, dialysis heart attack, stroke, then I think 3 months - thank you very much, it’s wonderful, but we’re going to beg for some more."

Magenheimer says the health center is trying to find funding so outreach can continue through the winter. Yesika Gonzalez says even without the prescription and money, she’ll keep at it.

JES: "This program ends in a couple of weeks, what are you going to do for the winter?"

Gonzalez: "Still buying fruit & vegetables. We need it."

For WNPR, I’m Jan Ellen Spiegel.