Prescriptions for Fruits and Vegetables: Just What the Doctor Ordered

September 25, 2017
Michel Nischan
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Wholesome Wave; Chef, Author and Food Equity Advocate

Everyone knows that daily fruits and vegetables are essential to good health. But not everyone can afford them: 30 million Americans live in “food deserts” and twice that number struggle with food insecurity. Families in poverty often must rely on the most affordable choices, which means produce is often off the table—literally—leading to what has been called the hunger-obesity paradox. Diet has surpassed smoking as the leading cause of disease and death in America, as diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol reach epidemic rates while disproportionately afflicting communities in poverty. And the resulting healthcare costs are staggering. Nationally, we spend $1.4 trillion annually in the treatment of these diseases and in lost productivity.

But at Wholesome Wave, the national nonprofit I founded, we see a solution: making produce affordable. Because when people can afford fruits and vegetables, they buy them. Diets change overnight and, over time, public health improves. That’s why we’ve been working since 2007 to make produce affordable for the people who need it most.   

In 2016, we reached over 500,000 Americans, but we’re particularly proud to have teamed up with Target, America’s sixth-largest national retailer, to change the lives of hundreds of families in Los Angeles. 

Wholesome Wave has been perfecting produce prescription programs since 2008, and this was our largest yet. Launched in June 2016 through an $800,000 grant from Target and a partnership with the Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center, our LA Produce Prescription (FVRx) Program provided 544 low-income patients with prescriptions their families could redeem for free produce at Target stores and area farmers markets.

A federally qualified health center, Eisner’s clientele fit Wholesome Wave’s target population: families that can’t afford fruits and vegetables. More than 98% of the clinic’s patients are below 150% of the poverty level. Patient families that qualify for FVRx earned less than $39,248 for a household of five. Prior to enrollment, most patients weren’t eating even half the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, and 65% of participating households were food insecure. Eisner’s pediatricians say urging parents to feed their children more produce can be futile—if they can’t afford it, their kids can’t eat it.

Enter FVRx.

Nelson Samayoa, caseworker at the clinic, explained, “The simple fact is that fruits and vegetables can be pricey, and most of our families cannot afford that. Now, with this program they can get fruits and vegetables and don’t have to worry, ‘If I get this [food], I won’t have money to pay my bills.’ A lot of parents are telling me, ‘Oh my gosh, this program is helping my kids a lot.’”

Paula, a single mom enrolled in the program, said grocery money was tight: “Budgeting, it’s very hard to be honest,” she explained. “Before, it was really hard for me to even get [my son] to eat anything healthy. But going to fast food and buying a burger for a dollar, in the long run, it’s just gonna mess up our health.”

Her eyes lit up when she raved about our program, saying that, thanks to the program, she and her son were able to eat lots of cucumbers; strawberries; jicama; lettuce; tomatoes; corn; carrots; and her new favorite, Brussels sprouts. All of which meant extra income for area agriculture. At a nearby weekly market, farmers took in an additional $70,000 through this program in just a few months. They made more money by selling more produce to the customers who need it most.

“It’s amazing,” said Samayoa. “Our families cannot believe what they’re getting. They tell me, ‘Before it was difficult to have the kids eat fruits and vegetables, and now they’re like, ‘Mom what are we having for dinner?’ It’s really making a big difference.”

Target went beyond the role of funder, also serving as a location for patients to redeem their fruit and vegetable prescriptions, resulting in 10-hours-per-day, seven-days-per-week access to healthy food for enrolled patients.

In just six months we reached over 500 pediatric patients and their families, who spent over $270,000 on fruits and vegetables (over $140,000 of it at Target), with nearly 60% of parents reporting improvements in their children’s health over the six months of the program. Ninety three percent of patients reported meeting fruit and vegetable guidelines at the close of the program, and of those who didn’t meet vegetable intake guidelines at the beginning of the program, there was a 206% increase in vegetable servings by the end. Participating patients also reported a 38% decrease in food insecurity.

And low-income families weren’t the only ones to benefit. For Target, this closed-loop program also drove brand loyalty, positive social responsibility, customer acquisition, and new revenue streams. For every $1 produce prescription redeemed at Target, customers spent an additional $1 of their own money on fruits and vegetables—a true win-win for both the customer and Target.

As Laysha Ward, chief corporate social responsibility officer at Target, put it, “Together, we will help remove barriers to wellness in our communities, working to increase the consumption of nutrient-dense food and physical activity of kids and families across the country.”

But don’t take her word for it—or mine. The program’s successful outcomes earned it a place on Fast Company’s list of 2017 World-Changing Ideas, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Health Means Business Partnership of the Year award.

And while we’re proud of these impacts, they’re just the beginning. Here at Wholesome Wave, we’re positioned to take this work to tens of millions of Americans, and to truly change the world—through food.

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