“How important is this? This is a matter of life and death,” said Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8), “because a lot of people have to decide what they want to eat, and for far too many people we’ve been eating stuff that’s detrimental to our health for a long time.”
White was on hand to celebrate the kickoff of the Produce Prescription Program (Produce Rx), held on April 24 at Giant Food store (1535 Alabama Ave. SE). Produce Rx allows medical professionals to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetables to patients experiencing diet-related chronic illnesses. Giant Foods is also offering clinics and additional support for program patients.
The pilot program will run at the Alabama Avenue Giant through Dec. 29. The program is funded largely by the District Department of Health (DOH), together with partners Community of Hope Healthcare (2375 Elvans Rd. SE), the children’s clinic at Anacostia and THEARC and the Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (1901 Mississippi Ave. SE) as well as District Unity Health clinics.
Food as Medicine
Launching with an initial 500 patients, Produce Rx is designed to integrate healthy food access into the healthcare system, and to strengthen clinical tools for addressing patients’ needs.
Program participants who are Medicaid beneficiaries through AmeriHealth Caritas DC and are experiencing a diet-related chronic illness, such as diabetes or hypertension, can receive a prescription for fruits and vegetables from their healthcare provider. The prescriptions can then be filled at the Giant pharmacy. A pharmacist provides the customer with one $20 coupon per week (or $40 biweekly) for purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables from the produce department.
Patients are connected with nutritionists and other health resources and periodically check in with health providers to renew prescriptions, track their health and remain on the continuum of care.
The program addresses a known health need. The nearly 150,000 residents in Wards 7 and 8 have only three grocery stores. (A Good Food Market is expected to open in Ward 8, at 4001 South Capitol St. SW, in late 2019.) The DC Policy Center determined in 2017 that 46% of the District’s food deserts are located in Ward 8, with 31% in Ward 7.
While other wards have ready access to full-service commercial grocers, Wards 7 and 8 have seen a decrease from seven stores in 2010 to three today.
Some 26% of the homes in DC that struggle to put food on the table have children, but there’s a 15-year difference in life expectancy between residents of Ward 3 and Ward 8, largely due to diet-related illnesses.
“We’re dealing with some of the highest health disparities in the District in Ward 8,” Councilmember White said at the launch, noting that the ward is home to a high proportion of seniors and children. “This is about reeducating ourselves and figuring out how we can live longer,” he said.
DC Greens Executive Director Lauren Shweder Biel declared at the program launch, “Today across the country there is a growing recognition that food is medicine. We must stop acting as though healthy food is a luxury item.”
DOH Director LaQuanda Nesbitt, who also attended the launch, explained that “getting healthy food to all of the members of our community is the only way that we’re going to improve health equity in this city. So many of our health issues are linked to food-related illnesses. We do not improve the health and well-being of our community without improvements to food access.”
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh (D) called the Produce Rx program innovative and exciting. “It’s not just a matter of expanding access to food that people may want,” she said. “It’s getting food that people need, they absolutely need this.” The program also helps District physicians, who, she said, have been frustrated by patients who clearly need healthy food to improve their health but lack access.
Added Biel, “It’s really cross-sector partnerships like this that have the ability to shift social determinates of health and create health equity in this city. We’re so thrilled to be standing alongside these partners to launch the program, now and into the future.”
Impact on Patients – and Families
Ward 8 resident Adrienne Dove was connected with the Produce Rx program by her doctor, Courtney Reid of Community of Hope Healthcare. Dr. Reid prescribed healthy food to help Dove address high blood pressure and anemia while eating better and perhaps losing weight.
Dove said that she was noticing a difference not just for herself but for her son. “My son goes through the vegetables like crazy,” she said, surrounded by fresh fruit and vegetables in Giant’s produce section. “To get my 16-year-old to eat that … because, he loves his fried chicken, but now he loves his vegetables with that.”
Her favorite produce is kale, because she makes a kale shake. “I try to drink that every day,” she said, crediting her mother with the recipe. “I was eating vegetables anyway,” she said, “but I started to slack off. This program, to have it at the grocery store that you shop at, that’s an excellent idea. I hope that other Giants and Safeway stores get on board too.”
“It really has impacted my family and me,” Dove said. “This can really help somebody, especially somebody who knows how to budget as well.”
The program partners will collect data on the use and outcomes, checking rates of use by participants and looking for changes in health indicators, such as blood pressure, weight or visits to emergency rooms. The correlated data will help determine if the pilot program should be expanded past the initial 500 participants.
“We are extremely proud of the partnership and so excited that together we can make a difference,” said Felis Andrade, Giant Food Stores director of external communications and community relations. “Giant Food’s top charitable priority has always been to alleviate hunger in the communities it serves. We recognize the important role we can play in the access to healthy foods and health education, which is why this partnership with DC Greens and the launch of the Produce Rx program feels like a perfect fit.”
You can learn more about the prescription produce program and DC Greens by visiting the website at www.dcgreens.org/produce-rx. For more information on the program, email Andrea Talhami at firstname.lastname@example.org.