Doctor's orders in Maine: Eat your veggies

Posted Aug. 17, 2010, at 2:01 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Physicians long have told patients fighting obesity to eat their fruits and vegetables. Now they’re writing prescriptions for it.

Health care providers are offering vouchers worth $1 per day to members of low-income families in Maine and Massachusetts participating in a new program. The idea is to boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by providing one serving a day from local farmers.

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The program, was created by Bridgeport, Conn.-based nonprofit Wholesome Wave., will formally launch Wednesday in Portland and Skowhegan, five days after it began in Massachusetts.

It will measure how the fresh produce affects blood pressure, weight and body mass index; blood-sugar levels; and participants’ weight. It also collects data on physical activity.

In Portland, 24 Somali women participating in the program had little experience with fruits and vegetables, a luxury that they weren’t accustomed to in refugee camps, said Amy Carrington of Cultivating Community, which is administering the program in Maine.

“In the refugee camps and then in the United States, they tend to be at extreme high risk for diabetes as they switch to processed food,” Carrington said.

In Maine, the program is targeting pregnant women and new mothers at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, Carrington said.

The Portland program focuses on refugees, all of whom are considered to be diabetic or pre-diabetic or are pregnant, at the Riverton complex run by the Portland Housing Authority, Carrington said. The women already are participating in an exercise class, and the fruit and vegetables are delivered once a week.

Doctors at Mercy Hospital will follow the health of the women, who already have lost weight from the exercise program alone, Carrington said. For the past six weeks, the women have added fresh vegetables, along with strawberries, blueberries and melons, to their diet.

Before the program, the women stocked up on rice, pasta, meat and milk at the grocery store. “They weren’t buying vegetables — at all,” Carrington said.

In the initial year, the program expected to reach more than 100 families in Massachusetts and Maine. Organizers plan to expand to additional sites over the next year.

“What makes this program unique is the administration of prescription in the form of a fruit-and-vegetable prescription by a doctor,” Wholesome Wave Chief Operating Officer Juliette Taylor-DeVries said. “And it has tremendous positive effects on the communities because it invigorates the local economy and it provides a new revenue stream for local farmers — and access and affordability to people who do not have access to fresh healthy food.”

In Massachusetts, the program is being implemented by Fitchburg-based Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, or CAVU. It is funded by money raised by Wholesome Wave and matched by the state Department of Agricultural Resources and the Wellesley-based Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

Participants at community health centers in Holyoke, Lawrence and Boston are being chosen based on the level of obesity in the family, financial limitations that serve as a barrier to buying fresh produce, and compliance with obesity treatment protocol, organizers said.

In addition to providing better nutrition, the program may also help farmers’ markets. While the markets do more than $1 billion in annual sales in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department, they must compete with fast-food restaurants that are able to sell higher calorie meals less expensively.

Maine also runs the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which subsidizes families that qualify for the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program with checks to be used at farmers markets.

Associated Press writer Rodrique Ngowi in Boston and Bangor Daily News staff contributed to this report.

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