A diet abundant in fruits and vegetables is the cornerstone of good health. But in many parts of the country, families in poverty can’t afford fresh produce. Since 2007, a nonprofit organization called Wholesome Wave has been finding innovative ways to put more fresh fruits and vegetables on the tables of families in need. Skye Cornell, the group’s chief program officer, talked with Berkeley Wellness about programs around the country that are making a real difference.
Q. What’s the biggest obstacle in getting people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables?
A. For people with limited economic resources—especially people on food assistance—the biggest obstacle is cost. The cheapest foods are typically the unhealthiest—processed foods full of calories and not much else. Fruits and vegetables, in contrast, are expensive, especially for people in poverty. Forty-three million Americans rely on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps. Another 22 million are “food insecure”—they often don’t have the means to buy healthy nutritious food. People living in poverty are forced to make very hard choices. One-third of all Americans who are chronically ill must choose between purchasing food and purchasing medicine, for example. These are people who want to eat a healthy diet. They simply can’t afford to. And we’re seeing the consequences in terms of health, with increasing rates of conditions and diseases linked to a poor diet, such as obesity and diabetes. The nation spends about $500 billion on diet-related illnesses every year. A significant part of that cost could be avoided if we find ways to make fruits and vegetables affordable. When we unlock affordability, we are really unlocking unmet consumer demand for healthier food. And that, in turn, has real benefits for individuals, families, and local economies.
Q. What is Wholesome Wave doing to make fruits and vegetables more affordable?
A. One way we’re making an important impact is through a program that matches dollar for dollar every dollar that people spend on fruits and vegetables using SNAP. In effect, we’re doubling the buying power of SNAP for produce. We started the program at local farmers’ markets in selected communities around the country, and the demand has been so great that we’re moving into grocery stores and supermarkets. The idea is to connect with people where they shop. Our network includes more than 90 community-based organizations at more than 700 direct-to-consumer markets in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Wholesome Wave Georgia has more than 45 participating farmers’ markets in that state alone. The other program we’ve created is called the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription (FVRx) Program, which enables family doctors, pediatricians, and other healthcare providers to write a prescription for a healthy diet.
Q. How does a fruit and vegetable prescription work?
A. Let me give you the example of a program in southern Los Angeles that we’re very excited about. Target teamed up with the Eisner Pediatric & Family Medical Center to provide 544 low-income patients with prescriptions their families can redeem for free produce at farmers’ markets and Target stores. Target provided a generous $800,000 grant to underwrite the program. A doctor writes out the prescription, which is essentially a voucher which can be used for fresh fruits and vegetables. Doctors love the program, because it offers a way for them to do more than simply tell people to eat a healthier diet. I talked to one pediatrician who told me, “I write prescriptions all the time for drugs once people are sick. This gives me a way to write a prescription for foods that can help keep them from getting sick.” We have a growing number of Fruit and Vegetable Prescription projects starting up around the country.
Q. How do you measure the success of programs like these?
A. One way to gauge the impact is to talk to the people involved, who tell us that they finally have a way to buy healthier food for themselves and their families. And then there are the individual stories of families whose lives are dramatically changed by programs like these. I’m thinking of a 10-year-old girl who was overweight and suffering from asthma. She had to use an inhaler and was taking daily steroid treatments. Her doctor at Harlem Hospital, in New York, wrote out a fruit and vegetable prescription for her. Over the first year, she lost weight on the program. By the end of the second year she no longer needed to take steroids. She’s now living the active life both she and her mother have always wanted for her, swimming, playing soccer, being a cheerleader. These are the kinds of transformations we can see in people’s lives, simply by making fruits and vegetables affordable.
And there are other measurable benefits. By unlocking unmet consumer demand, we also help businesses like small farmers and local grocery stores. In southern L.A., for example, at nearby farmers’ markets, farmers have taken in an additional $70,000 as a result of the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Projectin just a few months. The farmers we’ve talked to say that they can increase acreage, grow a wider variety of produce, and even increase their growing season, now that they have more customers who can afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. So these programs don’t just benefit families in poverty. They also benefit their communities in important, lasting ways.
Q. What can people do to help in their own communities?
A. The first step is to check to see if farmers’ markets or groceries in your area are participating in the dollar-for-dollar matching program. We have an updated list on our website. You can support them by shopping there. And anyone who receives SNAP can take advantage of the program at a participating market or grocery. The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Project is available at participating clinics or medical centers. Of course one of our goals at Wholesome Wave is to expand these programs. So if you don’t have a program in your area, talk to your health care provider and your local clinic or hospital about becoming involved. People can donate to support our work, or the work of any local groups that try to put healthy food on the table. This all comes down to money. Our programs are underwritten by public and private partnerships and by donations from corporations and foundations, but also from individuals. Every dollar helps.
This opinion does not necessarily reflect the views of the UC Berkeley School of Public Health or of the Editorial Board at BerkeleyWellness.com.
Also see The Benefits of Colorful Produce.