Imagine a doctor writing a prescription for broccoli. Instead of going to the drugstore, the patient is directed to where fresh produce is available, like a farmers market.

Iris Peppard of Marina-based nonprofit Everyone’s Harvest and Tiffany DiTullio of Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System collaborated to create the Fresh Prescription Program, modeled after a similar initiative run by Massachusetts-based Wholesome Wave Foundation. When a doctor writes a prescription for fruits and vegetables, Everyone’s Harvest provides a voucher for the patient to shop at its farmers markets. The goal is for patients to develop new habits of going to market every week and making food healthier choices through the life of the program and beyond.

“It’s about changing your lifestyle,” Peppard says.

Everyone’s Harvest tested the premise with the Monterey County Health Department, and reached out to Julie Edgcomb, bureau chief of clinic services at the Monterey County Health Department, to enroll select patients at the county’s Seaside clinic.

“Healthcare usually partners with healthcare,” Edgcomb says. “This is health care partnering with farmers markets. [Patients will start] understanding that broccoli is as important to their health as penicillin.”

Monterey County Gives!

Sixteen different nonprofits, including Everyone’s Harvest, present their Big Ideas under the Health, Wellness & Food section at www.montereycountygives.com They include:

  • Ag Against Hunger ($3,465 raised at press time)
  • Food Bank for Monterey County ($12,535)
  • Meals on Wheels of the Monterey Peninsula, Inc. ($7,295)
  • Meals on Wheels of the Salinas Valley, Inc. ($415)

 

The pilot ran from May through October. Five patients from the clinic’s cardiac wellness program participated. Each was given a voucher enabling them to buy $25 in produce each week at the SVMH farmers market, and they also got recipe cards featuring fruits and veggies in season and on market stands. Fall recipes included a kale and quinoa salad. Each patient was also regularly weighed and had their body mass index tracked.

Lily Garner participated in the pilot. She tried to eat healthily in the past, but put on weight due to stress and a knee injury that left her inactive.

The program, she says, made a big difference to her because it made produce so readily available. Getting weighed and measured to track her progress provided motivation to keep her going.

But she especially loved how the recipes gave her the chance to experiment with new ideas and ingredients. Some of the greatest hits included cauliflower mashers and fruit salsa. Garner was surprised to learn mashed cauliflower creates a white porridge that tastes just like potatoes, but with far fewer carbohydrates and calories. She loved the fruit salsa because she could adjust the spiciness, using bell peppers instead of jalapeños to get the mild taste she prefers.

Garner also began buying vegetables that she didn’t know existed before, like tiny yellow tomatoes – sweeter than their red cousins and a new favorite in salads.

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Using the vouchers, she also began buying organic. “I loved the strawberries,” she says. “You can really taste the difference. They’re fruitier and plumper.”

All the patients who took part saw slimmer waists by the end. Everyone lowered their BMI, a measure which takes height into account to determine how much body fat people carry.

According to DiTullio, the doctor’s directive really makes the difference for patients. “To say ‘eat healthy’ is one thing, but to attribute your eating habits with a diagnosis is more significant,” she says. Edgcomb hopes to see the program expand and treat more patients, especially obese and diabetic children.

“This is a family effort that has to be done,” she says. The produce goes to feed the whole family, and kids can learn healthier habits to live by and pass on when they start their own families.

Edgcomb adds that this program can potentially be used to treat patients with heart disease, high blood pressure and sometimes even depression. Many cancers are also linked to nutrition.

“I don’t think there is anyone who couldn’t benefit from a produce prescription,” Peppard agrees.

With additional funding, Peppard and DiTullio hope to expand the program to more clinics and SVMH patients, as well as include more farmers markets like Natividad. They are currently applying for grants to continue the pilot program in 2015 and appealing for public support through the Monterey County Gives! Campaign (see box, left).

It costs a lot per patient – a total of $1,200 for one year. DiTullio believes it is worth the high price tag because it creates major and long-term changes. “It’s not a drop in the bucket,” she says. “It’s about serving the patient for a long-time period.”

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