Fresh Local Produce is Good for What Ails You

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Anyone who doesn’t live under a rock, in a cave on Mars, knows that our health as a nation is threatened by diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and a list of other maladies that can be traced back to one underlying condition — obesity. The health-care profession has largely taken a reactionary, drug-based approach to the symptoms of obesity, and rarely is a diet on your doctor’s prescription pad.

That is changing for the patients at the Thundermist Health Center. As one of seven sites in the pilot of the Wholesome Wave Foundation’s Veggie Rx program, 40 families whose health-care needs are served by the clinic are given “prescriptions” that are basically farmers' market vouchers. Families in the program are given a dollar per day per family member, so a family of four would have a weekly credit of $28 good for fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ market, conveniently located in the clinic’s parking lot.

Funding for the program comes from the Wholesome Wave Foundation and the Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited (CAVU) Foundation, and is administered locally by Thundermist Health and Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

Participating families are referred by their primary physician to the clinic. Patients are then given a complete physical survey and receive nutritional counseling. At that point, a prescription is written that can be redeemed at a local farmers’ market. Participants return to the clinic monthly for re-evaluation.

Families that were chosen for the program were evaluated as “at risk” for diet-related illnesses such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, as well as families with pregnant women.

Because no pilot program is considered complete without a data set, market manager Kayla Ringelheim diligently records the ID number assigned to each redeemed prescription in a spreadsheet, and that information is sent to staff members at the clinic. The family’s purchases are then matched up with their current health evaluations in the hopes that some positive change can be observed.

Dr. Beata Nelken, a doctor at the clinic, oversees the initial nutritional counseling and subsequent physical check-ups for the participating families.

“The Veggie Rx program works in conjunction with the childhood obesity program that we started last September, which has overall been very successful," Nelken said.

Successful may be an understatement — 78 percent of children participating in the program have decreased their body mass index, 66 percent have decreased their waist circumference and 50 percent have lowered their cholesterol count and insulin production. That trend is only gaining momentum as these families collect and consume fresh, local fruits and veggies with their “prescriptions.”

As the health of families participating in the Veggie Rx pilot improves, it becomes more evident that fresh, local produce is just what the doctor ordered.