Produce prescriptions’ may boost patients’ health by encouraging them to eat more vegetables.

Produce prescriptions' may boost patients' health by encouraging them to eat more vegetables.

The Power of “Produce Prescription” Programs: Enhancing Health and Fighting Hunger

In a world where prescriptions typically come in the form of pills, a new kind of prescription is making waves and changing lives. It turns out that an apple a day may be just what the doctor ordered. Recent research on “produce prescription” programs has shown that when individuals have access to free fruits and vegetables, they experience measurable benefits in their health and overall well-being.

The concept of produce prescriptions is relatively simple yet profoundly impactful. Participants in these programs receive gift cards or vouchers for free produce at retail grocers or farmers markets. The idea is to alleviate food insecurity, improve nutrition, and promote healthier habits among individuals at risk for heart disease and other health conditions.

Kurt Hager, the first author of a study conducted at Tufts University, believes that these programs have a strong proof of concept. He emphasizes the importance of expanding access to these programs and improving the quality and robustness of evaluations. Hager’s research, published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, examined the effectiveness of produce prescription programs in improving the health outcomes of approximately 1,800 children and nearly 2,100 adults who participated in a food prescription program operated by the nonprofit organization, Wholesome Wave.

What researchers discovered was astonishing. When participants consumed more fruits and vegetables as part of the produce prescription program, their blood sugar and blood pressure levels improved, and some even experienced weight loss. The positive impact of these programs can be attributed to the fact that food insecurity, the lack of reliable access to sufficient food, often leads to stress, anxiety, and poor dietary choices. Many individuals facing food insecurity are forced to compromise on the quality of food they consume in order to meet other basic needs, such as housing, utilities, and medications.

Although produce prescriptions are not a new phenomenon, they are not yet widespread. However, the concept of “food as medicine” is gaining momentum and recognition. A White House conference last fall saw partners discussing a policy proposal to eradicate hunger in the United States within the next decade. While there is undoubtedly a growing movement, it is crucial to acknowledge that most Americans who could benefit from these programs do not have access to them currently.

The produce prescription program operated by Wholesome Wave offered an array of benefits to participants. They attended nutrition classes and received a median amount of $63 per month to purchase produce, allowing them to increase their intake significantly. The duration of the programs ranged from four to ten months, during which significant improvements were observed in various health markers.

The study found that adult participants increased their daily produce intake by nearly 1 cup, while children increased theirs by a quarter-cup per day. Moreover, both systolic and diastolic blood pressure improved among adults who had high blood pressure at the beginning of the program. Systolic pressure decreased by over 8 mm Hg, indicating a significant reduction in arterial pressure during heartbeats. Diastolic blood pressure, the pressure between heartbeats, decreased by nearly 5 mm Hg. Participants with diabetes experienced a reduction in their blood sugar levels, as measured by HbA1C, with levels decreasing by 0.29 to 0.58 percentage points. This decrease represents a substantial improvement in managing blood sugar levels and reducing the risk of complications associated with diabetes.

In addition to the physical health improvements, participants reported an enhanced health status by the end of the program. Adults were 62% more likely to report better health, while children were more than twice as likely. Furthermore, participants were one-third less likely to experience food insecurity compared to before the program. These findings establish a robust connection between increased access to produce and improved health outcomes, illustrating the tangible benefits of produce prescription programs.

It is worth noting that the researchers did not have comparative data from individuals without a produce prescription. However, the positive findings of this study lay a foundation for future research and evaluation of these programs. Kurt Hager hopes that further investigations will consider additional factors that may contribute to the observed improvements, such as changes in medication or increased physical activity.

Candice Myers, the director of the Social Determinants and Health Disparities Lab at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, emphasized the significance of produce prescription programs in promoting a healthful diet and overall well-being. These programs alleviate financial strain, enhance food access and affordability, and enable individuals to incorporate fresh produce into their daily lives. Myers stressed the importance of involving clinicians in these initiatives, as they often witness firsthand the impact of food insecurity on their patients. By equipping clinicians with the knowledge and resources to connect patients with produce prescription programs, individuals can receive the support they need to improve their health outcomes effectively.

While significant progress has been made in the realm of produce prescription programs, further steps are necessary to ensure their sustainability and widespread implementation. The programs studied in Hager’s research were short-term and funded through grants, which posed limitations to their continuation despite the positive health outcomes. To scale these programs across the United States and make them sustainable, Hager suggests that federal health insurance programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, begin covering these services. Additionally, funding and evaluation support from insurers and other organizations will be crucial for the long-term success and expansion of produce prescription programs.

The evidence is clear: produce prescription programs have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare landscape. By addressing food insecurity, improving nutrition, and promoting healthier habits, these programs pave the way for a brighter and healthier future. As the movement gains momentum, it is essential to ensure that access to produce prescription programs becomes a reality for all Americans. Through collaborative efforts between healthcare providers, policymakers, and organizations, we can work towards eradicating hunger, promoting healthier lifestyles, and unlocking the tremendous power of “food as medicine.”