“Eat your vegetables,” many parents tell their children. Now, doctors are taking a similar approach with their patients.
Through a partnership between the Family Health Center and World Hunger Relief Inc., doctors are supplying patients with fresh, “prescription vegetables” in an effort to prevent diseases caused by poor diet.
“For years we’ve been instructing patients to eat healthier in order to help prevent disease or to treat existing disease, but haven’t had the option to immediately gain access to that healthy food,” said Dr. Jackson Griggs, a family physician at the Family Health Center. “Through the prescription program, we’ve been able to eliminate barriers to having access.”
A grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation, a Texas research and health care services provider, makes the project possible. World Hunger Relief is providing about 1,200 half-bushel boxes of vegetables over a period of 10 weeks, five of which have passed.
Patients at three Family Health Center locations have their vegetable prescriptions filled in the lobby after doctor visits. The participating locations are on 1600 Providence Drive, 1911 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and 1800 Gurley Lane.
Eighty-seven percent of Americans do not eat enough vegetables, a 2015 government survey found. Bad eating habits are the leading risk factors for early death and disabilities, Griggs said.
“Dietary risks lead to the most common killers in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of other problems,” he said.
The program gets to the root of problems associated with food insecurity, including a lack of education regarding vegetables, said Joel Scott, director of development and outreach at World Hunger Relief.
Raw kale, for instance, is bitter for first-time users. Cooking demonstrations and classes available through vouchers via World Hunger Relief can aid the palate transition process, Scott said.
‘Food is cultural’
“My cause is recognizing that food is cultural and that you’ve got to recognize folks like to eat food in a variety of ways . . . allowing folks to experience the way they would naturally do it within their family setting — just recognizing there’s not one way to eat whole foods,” Scott said. “Maybe the first step is exposing folks to the opportunity to have it in their households.”
When grocery stores close and public transportation efforts fail, access to vegetables decreases and people turn to convenience stores for food, Scott said.
Jeremy Everett often studies food deserts as executive director of Waco-based Texas Hunger Initiative, a Baylor University collaborative project researching policy solutions to food insecurity.
The grocery industry has a 1 percent profit margin, and most companies seek a population of 50,000 people before building a store, Everett said.
“It’s not just that they don’t want to go into low-income neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s an issue of a narrow profit margin. . . . It’s just not always a viable business option to put stores everywhere.
“Another reason is because there is a public perception that people in low-income communities don’t have as much money to spend (on groceries), which we know, when you begin to really dive down deep, that buying power in low-income communities is still really high.”
The seeds of the program came through Live Well Waco, Prosper Waco and Baylor’s Master’s of Public Health program, which has conducted additional research into the idea. Similar programs have succeeded around the country. Students of Baylor’s chapter of the American Medical Student Association also fill the prescriptions at the Family Health Center and help educate the patients on their new preventive remedies.
Griggs said the vegetable prescriptions are one of many strategies developed by a renewed national interest in preventive health to lower healthcare costs and improve quality of life.
People over the age of 55 with access to healthy foods see hospital readmissions reduced by 70 percent, Everett said.
“That saves the state and our country and our community billions and billions of dollars every year,” Everett said. “It’s obviously cheaper to give people vegetables than it is to provide medication. They’re getting ahead of the curve by really trying to identify who could benefit by having simple access to fruits and vegetables.”
Scott said he hopes the program will be able to continue into more harvest seasons.
“Our organization is excited because we think it’s something that’s very mission-centric and one of the ways we can be in a meaningful and manageable relationship directly with some of the health initiatives in Waco addressing issues of hunger,” Scott said.