Food Prescriptions

Food Prescriptions: Using Healthy Food to Manage Chronic Disease and Improve Community Health

By Molly Miller

food prescription WPA


What are Food Prescription Programs?

Food Prescription programs make it easier for low-income patients and their families to access the fresh fruits and vegetables they need in order to ensure that they are eating balanced, healthy diets. The programs generally begin with a partnership between a hospital and a local farmer’s market or CSA (community supported agriculture).

This lets doctors “prescribe” a certain dollar amount of fruits and vegetables to their patients. For example, a patient presenting with cardiovascular disease might be prescribed $40 in fruits and vegetables, which could then be used to buy those items from the farmer’s market or CSA.

The recent increase in the use of Food Prescription programs can be attributed to two major factors. First, the passage of the Affordable Care Act freed up Community Benefit money that had previously been used to pay for the care of patients who could not afford it. The money being saved allows nonprofit hospitals and health systems to engage their surrounding communities in more innovative ways, based on the results of community health assessments held every three years. Second, the 2014 Farm Bill included funding for a new program called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Program, which provides grants for organizations (including hospitals) that are working to increase access to healthy foods in their community.

Hospitals use Food Prescription programs in a variety of ways, with some hospitals hosting on-site farmer’s markets to make access easier for patients, while others simply partner with existing farmer’s markets to ensure that their “prescriptions” will be an accepted form of payment. Organizations such as Wholesome Wave and Health Care Without Harm are also doing their part to help hospitals determine the best ways to improve access to healthy foods in their communities.

Do Food Prescription Programs Actually Work?

Although Food Prescription programs are relatively new, pilot programs have shown promising results in improving health outcomes in communities where they have been implemented.

  • hospitals and foodThe Fresh Prescription Program, which seeks to build partnerships between the local food system, the healthcare system, and low-income patients in the Detroit area, allows patients to fill their prescriptions at a partnering farm stand or market. Additionally, program participants receive nutrition counseling, cooking demonstrations, and educational support for making healthy eating changes.
    • In 2014, 71 percent of participants reported being better able to manage their health conditions after participating in the program.
    • In 2014, over $8,200 was spent on fresh, local produce through the Fresh Prescription program, helping to build the local food system in Detroit.
    • In 2014, 44 percent of participants reported a decrease in the number of times they consumed unhealthy foods during an average week, while 85 percent of participants reported eating more fruits and vegetables.

  • food prescription 2Currently operating in five states and Washington D.C., Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Rx Program (FVRx) is a four-to-six-month program designed to link healthcare providers, local food producers, and families with diet-related illnesses. Program participants work with a healthcare provider to set goals and receive information about the importance of nutrition and healthy eating. During the initial clinical visit, patients receive an FVRx prescription and their health indicators are measured. Prescriptions can only be redeemed at participating retailers, which allows the program to track redemption of prescription credits. Participants then attend monthly clinic visits to refill their prescriptions and set new goals.
    • In 2013, 54.9 percent of participants who completed the program increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by an average of 2 cups.
    • 96 percent of participants agreed that they were happier with their healthy weight management program due to their participation in FVRx.
    • 41 percent of child participants decreased their BMI.

For additional information on how your hospital can establish a Food Prescription program, click here to view a fact sheet on developing on-site CSAs and Farmer’s Markets.

Read an article in The Atlantic on How Food Prescriptions Can Save our Cities. And listen to the NPR story “No Bitter Pill: Doctors Prescribe Fruits and Veggies.

Art: WPA poster, Library of Congress