Wed, Dec 10, 2014 - Page 11 News List

Prescribing vegetables, not pills

A new program provides low income families with an incentive to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fast food

By Jane E. Brody  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Fruit and veg: obesity’s biggest enemy.

Photo: Reuters

Alaijah Borden was 10 years old and overweight when Dr Sundari Periasamy, a pediatrician at Harlem Hospital Center in New York, enrolled her in an innovative program to increase her consumption of fruits and vegetables — and, hopefully, to reduce her weight.

After two years in the program, Alaijah, a middle school student, is a success story: She lost 5 pounds the first year by snacking on fruits and vegetables, then 8 pounds the second year after cutting down on greasy foods.

Her mother, Sheryl Brown, 33, said Alaijah used to sabotage home-cooked family dinners by buying junk food on her way to and from school. Now Alaijah carries fruit or cut vegetables to school.

“It’s really an awesome program that’s made it more affordable for me to get fruits and vegetables,” Brown said. “I told my daughter it’s better to be told you’re overweight and here’s the solution than to just be told you’re overweight and sent home.”

Mom, too, has benefited. Though not overweight, Brown brought her hypertension under control without medication when, like her daughter, she switched her snacks to fruits and vegetables.

The Browns are among 50 low-income families with overweight children enrolled in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, or FVRx, at Harlem Hospital Center. Three other hospitals in New York are also testing the program.

The program was created by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund in partnership with Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group that advocates for access to better food in low-income neighborhoods, and the city’s Health and Hospital Corp. It is a startlingly simple idea.

SIMPLE IDEA

Instead of drugs or admonishments to lose weight, which typically fall on deaf ears, doctors provide families with a “prescription” to eat fruits and vegetables. The families also are given nutritional education, recipes and, most important of all, so-called Health Bucks that are redeemable for produce at a local farmers’ market — at twice the amount that the families could purchase with food stamps alone. (Brown receives US$325 in food stamps each month to feed her family of five.)

There is no single solution to the nation’s epidemic of obesity and the costly diseases that result from it. But this and similar programs strongly suggest that providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables, with the means to purchase them and the motivation to do so, can have an impact.

New York’s FVRx program operates in poor areas known as “food deserts,” where eating at places like McDonald’s is both cheaper and easier than purchasing fresh foods and preparing them at home.

“For people today with income shortages, getting good food like high-quality fruits and vegetables is a big problem,” said Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, which supports the programs at community health centers.

“A movement to restrict food stamps to healthy foods is well-meaning, but it wouldn’t work in many areas where 7-Elevens are the main source of people’s food,” said Nischan, a former chef who began focusing on nutrition when his son developed Type 2 diabetes. The goal is to “level the playing field between artificially cheap unhealthy stuff and the healthy foods that wealthier people enjoy.”

It is a win-win endeavor. Participants who qualify get tokens, or Health Bucks, to spend on fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The farmers are reimbursed for the full value of their goods with dollars from community-based nonprofits and grants.

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