Nonprofit Voice | Food as medicine: Wholesome Wave Georgia’s turnaround prescription for a modern health crisis
Angel* lives with her daughter and two young grandchildren in Harrisburg, a historic mill village just west of downtown Augusta. Like many mill villages across the country, Harrisburg slipped into decline in the late 20th century. In that decline, businesses and houses were boarded up, weeds covered lawns that were once well-kept, and formerly bustling streets grew silent.
As a result, fresh food became scarce: Prices went up and accessibility came down, leaving Angel with limited options to feed her family. Before last year, a fresh summer tomato or ripe winter squash was simply out of reach: “I couldn’t afford to eat that way,” she says. Cheap, processed foods became the new norm for families like hers. “I just wish that McDonalds hadn’t been such a part of my life back then. But that was it. Nothing else for supper, except maybe pizza.”
There’s a catchphrase to describe the predicament of Angel’s family: food insecurity.
Across the country, food insecurity is linked not just to poverty, but the growing prevalence of obesity and heart disease. In Georgia, the effects on families are evident: 63% of adults and 37% of children statewide are either overweight or obese.
The effects on Angel were also apparent: As of the beginning of last year, she had endured two heart attacks, a stroke, and struggled with high cholesterol. She also described herself as depressed: “I didn’t leave my house for six months. I didn’t go outside.” Her doctors did not think she would survive, and doubted her ability to change what made her so sick. Her strength of will, and the support of a new program from Wholesome Wave Georgia, proved them wrong: Determined to turn her health around, Angel began in 2015 with an overhaul of her diet and enrollment in Wholesome Wave Georgia’s new Fruit & Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx).
The FVRx program addresses the health effects of food insecurity by connecting individuals who have diet-related illnesses, healthcare providers, and farmers markets in an innovative process that increases fruit and vegetable consumption through greater access, support, and funding. Building on the program’s success in other parts of the nation, Wholesome Wave Georgia launched the Southeast’s first FVRx program in Augusta in 2015 at the Harrisburg Family Healthcare Clinic, and has since expanded to two sites in Atlanta: Grady Hospital and Good Samaritan Health Center.
Once a month at each of these sites, participants like Angel meet with medical providers for group nutrition and culinary education classes. During these visits, participants get their blood pressure and weight checked, discuss healthy eating habits, and prepare healthy meals together. With each visit, participants receive a pre-paid “prescription” for fruits and vegetables, equal to one dollar per day for each family member, redeemable at their local farmers market. Every week, more than 120 enrolled individuals eagerly return to markets (like the Veggie Truck Farmers Market in Augusta) with their prescriptions, and head home with bags full of fresh, Georgia-grown produce.
In Angels’ 2015 FVRx program cohort, participants increased their fruit and vegetable consumption, on average, from 3.9 daily servings to 5.1, and all experienced improvements in blood pressure. Over her first six months, the program helped Angel lose 27 pounds, bring her blood pressure down to a normal range, and once again “feel good about myself.” Her primary care physician was so impressed with her results that he is looking more closely at the diets of his other patients, and finding new converts for the food-as-medicine approach. This year, Angel is serving as a mentor to our 2016 cohort of FVRx program participants, and excited to help others feel good about themselves again.
The tremendous impact of the FVRx program in its first two years has Wholesome Wave Georgia already thinking about how we can expand the program strategically and sustainably. With interest from healthcare providers and farmers markets across the state, we’re exploring how we can collaborate to scale FVRx, and impact the lives of individuals like Angel across the state.
For more information about the impact of FVRx programs across the country, click here.
*Last name withheld to protect participant’s privacy.
Caitlin Still is Development and Events Coordinator at Wholesome Wave Georgia, which works to provide all Georgians access to fresh, healthy, local food.