Rx for Healthy Eating

Posted Aug. 19, 2010, at 7:51 p.m.

It may sound like overreach, but a program that includes a prescription to eat fresh fruits and vegetables is a novel way to combat a troubling national trend.

Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut-based nonprofit group, has teamed up with two hospitals in Maine to provide prescriptions and vouchers to low-income families. The vouchers, worth $1 a day, can be used to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. The group, which launched a similar effort in Massachusetts this month, also aims to support local farmers by creating new markets for their produce.

In Portland, the program will dovetail with work already being done at a housing complex run by the city’s housing authority. There, 24 Somali women, all of whom are diabetic, pre-diabetic or pregnant, are already participating in an exercise class. Fresh vegetables and fruit are delivered to the complex and have been added to the women’s diet.

Amy Carrington of Cultivating Community, which administers the Portland program, said fruits and vegetables were a luxury in refugee camps in Africa, making the women highly susceptible to diabetes when they eat processed food in the U.S.

The second Maine location to sign on with Wholesome Wave is Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, which will focus on pregnant women.

In both places, the women’s weight, blood pressure and blood sugar will be monitored.

It isn’t just refugees who rely on processed foods to feed themselves and their families. Many low-income families can make their food dollars go further by buying processed foods rather than fresh. In some areas, the easily accessible stores don’t sell much, if any, fresh food. If children grow up with little exposure to produce, they are less likely to turn to fruits and vegetables for snacks and meals later in life.

As a result, obesity rates for adults and children are on the rise. So is the incidence of diet-related health problems, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. These problems shorten lives, reduce productivity and cost us all through higher health care and insurance costs.

While writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables and giving people money to buy them won’t solve these problems, they can help change attitudes and behavior, a first step in developing healthier lifestyles.

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