Take Two Tomatoes and Call Me in the Morning

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Everyone knows that eating more vegetables leads to decreased health risks, but it’s one thing to know it and quite another to have your doctor write a prescription that you can fill right outside the office.

That is the idea behind the Fruit and Veggie Rx (FVRx) program at the Thundermist Health Centers in Woonsocket and, this year, West Warwick. Each location hosts a farmers market — Tuesdays here and Thursdays in West Warwick — where participating families can “fill” their prescriptions, which are vouchers for farmers market tokens.

“It’s a wraparound approach,” said Skye Cornell, program director for the Wholesome Wave Foundation, the lead sponsor of the program. “We’re stressing the importance of healthy eating habits, and providing access and affordability to fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables with each visit.”

ecoRI News reported the launch of this program last summer, and this year, the numbers are in.

Skye said the results of the 4-month program were encouraging. "We saw 38 percent of participants reduce their BMI (body mass index), and we had a greater retention rate than most obesity programs in underserved communities," she said.

The 2011 numbers for the participating farmers markets in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and California were impressive, according to the Wholesome Wave Foundation. Kayla Ringelheim, Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s healthy neighborhoods coordinator, said, “The FVRx program helped transform the Woonsocket market into one that was vibrant and economically viable for participating farmers.”

The FVRx program generated new farmers market customers. About 50 percent of the participating FVRx families said they had never been to a farmers market, and about 50 percent of the families returned to the market eight or more times during the season. Over the course of the program, these new and returning customers resulted in an average of $8,129 in increased revenue per market.

Last week, Chuck Jones, president and CEO of Thundermist, opened the Woonsocket farmers market and the launch of this year’s FVRx program saying, “It’s important in vulnerable communities to stress prevention of health risks like obesity, diabetes and stroke. Treatments for these things can be lengthy and expensive. Preventive measures, like a change in diet, are relatively inexpensive, but without access to healthier foods, those changes are impossible to make.”

Thundermist has gone a step further in providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to its patients. This year, with the help of University of Rhode Island master gardeners — Thundermist opened a community garden at the West Warwick location. The garden includes 30 beds, including a few “standing beds” designed for those with physical disabilities.

On a recent visit to the garden, ecoRI News caught up with Lucien Dubuc, a retired housepainter. Dubuc seemed really excited about the garden, which led us to believe that he had been gardening for some time. But he insisted that,” I just started when they built the garden. It gets me out of the house. I love it.” Dubuc takes care of his own bed and maintains the bed belonging to the Clyde Towers Tenants Association.

The farmers markets and community garden are part of a concerted effort by policymakers at Thundermist to change the approach to health care in Rhode Island. “We want to focus on preventing disease, while it’s still preventable,” said Dean Canning, Thundermist’s director of giving. "The object is to have our patients spend less time in our offices.”