When it comes to maintaining healthy weight and having a balanced diet, fresh fruits and vegetables are just what the doctor ordered.

Produce: Just what the doctor ordered

Fred Wilkinson
Food for Thought

A new initiative in Massachusetts is taking that thought a step further.

Doctors at three health centers in the state are prescribing produce from local farmers markets, aiming to fight obesity in children of low-income families, according to a recent New York Times story.

Under the pilot program, which plans to enroll up to 50 families of four, participants will receive coupons amounting to $1 a day for each member of a patient’s family to promote healthy eating.

While the doctors’ involvement is new, the Times reports, Massachusetts began issuing coupons redeemable at farmers markets to pregnant or breast-feeding low-income women and children at risk of malnourishment back in the 1980s.

Thirty-six states currently have similar programs, according to the article.

It makes sense to promote produce among citizens at higher risk for poor dietary choices because of inadequate access to fresh, healthful foods.

The small investment can pay dividends over a lifetime through reduced costs to Medicaid, Medicare or similar state-level medical programs.

Not to mention healthier, happier citizens.

Expanding reach

Massachusetts health officials deserve commendation for enlisting doctors in the effort to improve diets.

Their focus on buying fruits and vegetables through farmers markets — while building on the state’s established program — comes with an inherent limitation.

Relying solely on farmers markets creates a considerable gap in geographic as well as seasonal access for program participants.

Eating fruits and vegetables isn’t (or at least shouldn’t be) just something people do from spring through fall when seasonal local and regional produce is for sale at farmers markets.

Healthy eating habits are something that must be practiced daily for them to become second nature.

Expanding the prescription produce effort to include everywhere fresh produce is available — grocery stores, convenience stores, club/warehouse stores — would significantly improve access to fruits and vegetables for plan participants.

Programs like this have been making gains in recent years — whether expanded access through the Women, Infants and Children program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or school feeding efforts like the salad bar program.

Public health officials deserve some credit for this, as do groups such as the United Fresh Produce Association and the Produce for Better Health Foundation for lobbying and working with regulators to get produce the bigger role it deserves in feeding efforts.

Maybe it won’t be long before patients will get those prescriptions filled in the produce aisle at Stop & Shop.

E-mail fwilkinson@thepacker.com

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