Amelia Freidline, copy editor
Amelia Freidline, copy editor

Think “American food” and things like fried chicken, burgers, hot dogs or New York pizza probably come to mind — as a country we’re largely ambivalent when it comes to produce.

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only 33% of adults ate the recommended daily serving of fruit, and only 27% ate the recommended daily amount for vegetables.

And we’re still eating less produce than is ideal.

Last year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found more than 60% of all age groups except kids 8 years and younger don’t eat enough fruit, and more than 80% of all ages, except those 50-71, don’t eat enough vegetables.

The reasons for this widespread lack of enthusiasm are harder to pinpoint, but cost, access and education are frequent explanations of why more Americans don’t buckle down and eat their fruits and vegetables.

Food deserts — which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as low-income and low-access communities where, in an urban setting, at least 33% of the population lives a mile or more away from a grocery store (10 miles in a non-metropolitan area) — are often blamed for feeding the obesity epidemic with an abundance of fast-food restaurants and scant healthy offerings at convenience stores.

To that end, Bridgeport, Conn.-based nonprofit Wholesome Wave in 2010 launched its Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, or FVRx, with an initial study in Maine and Massachusetts. Five years later, FVRx initiatives are now in 25 states and Washington, D.C., according to Wholesome Wave.

FVRx primarily targets overweight and obese kids in lower-income families that have diet-related diseases, but the group says it plans to expand its focus to adults with type 2 diabetes and other diet-related health issues as well.

The way the program works is pretty neat. Doctors enroll child patients who are overweight or obese in the program, which runs 4-6 months, then, along with a nutritionist, meet with the kids and their parents each month to evaluate health and eating habits and set goals.

At these visits the doctor gives the fruit and vegetable “prescription,” which is a $1 a day voucher for each patient and family member (so a family of five would receive $35 a week in FVRx vouchers).

The prescription is redeemed at participating retailers, who track FVRx redemption rates, and doctors set new goals for their patients based on their progress.

According to FVRx stats from 2013 (the most recent data available), nearly 55% of participating kids increased their produce consumption while they were in the program, and by an average of 2 cups.

USDA fruit and vegetable guidelines for kids range from 2-5 cups, depending on age and gender, so a 2-cup consumption increase is significant.

Nearly 42% of kids in the program also decreased their BMI, according to Wholesome Wave, which is also positive news.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, reporting recently on FVRx efforts in New York, said 97% of kids in the program and 96% percent of their families increased their produce consumption after joining the program.

Alaijah Borden, one of the participants Brody interviewed, lost 13 pounds after two years in FVRx and swapped her high-calorie snacks for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Her mom, Sheryl Brown, was also able to control her own high blood pressure without medication thanks to the produce prescription.

“It’s really an awesome program that’s made it more affordable for me to get fruits and vegetables,” Brody quotes Brown as saying.

With FVRx initiatives in half the country, I hope we hear a lot more stories like these in years to come.

Wider reach?

I also wonder if the program could be more effective if Wholesome Wave was willing to broaden its horizons a little. Right now it’s aimed at connecting participants to farmers markets and local growers.

According to the group’s 2013 stats sheet, “Participants significantly increased their knowledge about their neighborhood farmers markets, where to buy locally grown produce, and the importance of fruits and vegetables in their diet,” with 82% of participants buying most or all of their FVRx produce at farmers markets.

That’s great, but what are people in communities without year-round farmers markets supposed to do?

Of course it’s unfair to ask already busy medical professionals to double as grocery shopping experts, but it would be great if nutritionists or area FVRx administrators could also educate participants on where they can buy fresh produce close by when the program’s over or when farmers markets are shut down during winter.

They could also provide shopping tips so people could learn how to get the most produce for their money — whether at farmers markets or their closest grocer — and then use it effectively for maximum value and minimal waste.

According to Wholesome Wave, in the first four years of the FVRx program, 1,131 overweight or obese patients were enrolled and 5,655 low-income families were affected.

Here’s hoping that as the concept continues to gain steam, the organization can expand its reach to help more people make healthy choices and eat more produce year-round, not just when local produce and farmers markets are in season.

What's your take? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.