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Prescriptions For Fruit and Vegetables Makes Good Health Affordable in Harlem

farmers market
John Tornow/CC

A pediatrician at Harlem Hospital Center is finishing up a visit with her 11 year old patient. Alysia Borden has asthma. It’s made worse because she’s overweight. Her doctor is giving her the usual advice - exercise more, eat healthier. But then she pulls out a prescription pad, scribbles something and hands the prescription to the girl’s mother. But it’s not for medicine. Instead, it’s for fruits and vegetables at local farmer’s markets.

Alysia is one of the first patients in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program. It started as a pilot program at two hospitals in Harlem and the South Bronx. The program’s organizers chose neighborhoods where childhood obesity is especially high. Thirty-five percent of African American and 39 percent of Latino children are now overweight or obese, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Making good health affordable
Alysia’s pediatrician, Dr. Sundari Periasamy couldn’t understand why her patients who were overweight weren’t taking her advice to eat healthy. Then she found out they just couldn’t afford it. The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program became a tool for her to address that obstacle.

“There was a lady who told me she came after the program ended, ‘Thank you so much. This is the first time in my life that I’m eating real food.’ So that is why it’s more successful just because of that additional benefit of giving them the ability to buy,” says Periasamy.

The program helped Alysia lose weight. For a pre-teen gearing up for middle school, this boosted her body image. But for Alysia’s mother, the weight loss wasn’t the most important benefit from the program. Sheryl Browne says her family thinks about food completely differently now; they pay attention when shopping at the farmer’s market and cooking in the kitchen.

“We would ask the farmers- well how would I cook this? Well how do I pick this?” says Browne. “The kids learned how to pick their own vegetables, how to pick out melons...And as a result we learned new recipes, we tried new things, we actually had purple cauliflower this year.”

Better health for the whole family
Even though technically only Alysia is in the program, her whole family enjoys the benefits. They get a dollar per day per family member. For Sheryl and her four children, that’s 35 dollars a week- a substantial improvement for her food budget, she explains. “I have a family of five so with food stamps it doesn’t give you enough to be able to buy everything that is healthy or nutritional for your kids,” says Browne.

Wholesome Waveis the nonprofit that launched the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program. Michel Nischan is its Founder and CEO. He says fruits and vegetables are the Mercedes of food. Basically, just telling people that a Mercedes is a better car won’t get them to buy it if they can’t afford it. It’s the same with food.

“These families in poverty are going to feed their families whatever they can give with the financial resources that they have and unfortunately because the most affordable food is the stuff that’s worst for us from a health perspective, that’s what the families are eating,” says Nischan.

But over time, this type of cheap food can lead to serious health problems.

The risks of poor diet

“It’s very very rare to find someone who is obese and doesn’t have any other problems,” Nischan says. “Usually with obesity comes pre-diabetes, potential coronary problems, high blood pressure, hypertension, et cetera. All of these things that have been proven to increase the risk factor for death.”

And with these big health problems come big hospital bills. Alysia has asthma attacks that send her to the emergency room at least once a month, which can cost as much as $3000 for the ambulance.

However, in the months that the family received the fruits and vegetables, Alysia didn’t go to the ER at all. Wholesome Wave would like to see the privately funded program -- or one like it -- become publicly funded. Nischan believes taxpayers would save money over the long term and his organization is looking for ways to reduce costs and make the program appealing to healthcare providers and Medicare and Medicaid.

For now, the program only runs twenty weeks of the year -- the same weeks that most farmer’s markets are open. Since the markets closed for the season, Alysia has gained some weight back, and she’s having severe asthma attacks again. Her mother says without the farmer’s market produce they eat the way they used to.

Even with the limited time, Dr. Periasamy is proud of Alysia’s progress. Losing weight is not the only goal of the program, she says.

“Even though it’s just four months there is a change in habit,” she says. “Now when there is an opportunity they’re going to opt to eat fruits and vegetables when there is an option.”

In the pilot program, forty-three percent of the children reduced their body mass index in just twenty weeks. Browne says the program feels like a solution to the health problems her daughter faces.

“Instead of [the doctors] just saying “Your kid is obese, do something about it,” there’s actually an option—here, we’re going to help you, we’re going to show you how to help your kid.

The program is now expanding to Elmhurst in Queens New York. Wholesome Wave also wants to run the program all 52 weeks of the year. Until then, families like Sheryl’s will just have to wait until the spring for the farmer’s market to open again.

Reporting for this story was in collaboration with Heritage Radio Network.