Prescriptions for Produce in Massachusetts

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

The outdoor market at Boston's Haymarket (hydephine/Flickr)

Doctors at three Massachusetts medical centers are writing “prescriptions” for free fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets. Clinicians look for families of overweight and obese children enrolled in the centers’ exercise and nutrition program that can’t afford and lack access to fresh produce.

Whole families are enrolled; the main requirement is that at least one child be overweight or obese. The $20,000 pilot project is meant to stimulate better nutrition and healthier lifestyles among some of Boston’s low-income families.

Speaking on WBUR, one of Boston’s NPR stations, Dr. Shikha Anand, the program’s organizer, explained

The goal really is to increase consumption – to increase availability of fruits and vegetables in low income neighborhoods, and consumption of those within the low income neighborhoods. A lot of our families don’t really have the means to purchase fresh produce, so we’re really taking away the barriers to access.

The clinics give enrolled families vouchers they can exchange at any of the more than 200 markets that belong to the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers Markets. They are good for fruits and vegetables only. Each “prescription” buys $2.50 worth of produce. The program allots a dollar per day for each person in the family; a family of four can purchase $112 of fresh produce in a month.

Because of economics and location, some families are not familiar with fresh produce. For them, the clinics arrange sessions with dieticians who provide information on meals and cooking.

The program hopes to enroll about 50 families, comprising 150 to 200 individuals, this year. The goal is to roll it out to all Massachusetts medical centers in 2011.

Preliminary results show that participating families are consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables, Dr. Anand said. A more detailed analysis will be done when the market season ends late in October.

Other plans are to expand the project into the winter months; despite its climate, some produce is grown in Massachusetts in the winter.

Obviously, the families are not the only beneficiaries of the “prescription” program. Farmers will take home more dollars, which will then spread out into local economies, Dr. Anand noted.

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