Prescription to shed weight: Shift from pills to vegetables

After two years in the programme, Alaijah is an unqualified success story.

By: New York Times | Published: December 6, 2014 12:34 am
Doctors provide families in the FVRx programme with a “prescription” to eat fruits and vegetables. Doctors provide families in the FVRx programme with a “prescription” to eat fruits and vegetables.

Alaijah Borden was 10 years old and significantly overweight when Dr Sundari Periasamy, a paediatrician at Harlem Hospital Center in New York, enrolled the middle-schooler in an innovative programme to increase her consumption of fruits and vegetables — and, hopefully, to reduce her weight.

After two years in the programme, Alaijah is an unqualified success story: She lost five pounds the first year by snacking on fruits and vegetables, then eight pounds more the second year, when she cut down on greasy foods.

Her mother, Sheryl Brown, 33, said Alaijah used to sabotage home-cooked family dinners by buying junk food — cookies, cakes and other snacks — on her way to and from school. Now Alaijah carries fruit or cut-up vegetables to school. She likes raw carrots, celery and broccoli.
“It’s really an awesome programme that’s made it more affordable for me to get fruits and vegetables,” Ms Brown said. “I told my daughter it’s better to be told you’re overweight and here’s the solution than to just be told you’re overweight and sent home.”

Mom, too, has benefited. Though not overweight, Sheryl loves to snack and had developed high blood pressure. She brought it under control without medication when, like her daughter, she switched her snacks to fruits and vegetables.

The Browns are among 50 low-income families with overweight or obese children enrolled in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Programme, or FVRx, at Harlem Hospital Center. Three other hospitals in New York also have been testing the programme.

The programme was created by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organisation that advocates for access to better food in low-income neighborhoods, in partnership with the Laurie M Tisch Illumination Fund and the city’s Health and Hospital Corporation. It is a startlingly simple idea to deal with a complex problem.

Instead of drugs or admonishments to lose weight, which typically fall on deaf ears, doctors provide families in the FVRx programme with a “prescription” to eat fruits and vegetables. The families also are given nutritional education, recipes and, most important of all, so-called Health Bucks that are redeemable for produce at a local farmers’ market — at twice the amount that the families could purchase with food stamps alone. (Sheryl receives $325 in food stamps each month to feed her family of five.)

New York’s FVRx programme operates in poor areas known as “food deserts,” where eating at places like McDonald’s is both cheaper and easier than purchasing fresh foods and preparing them at home.

“For people today with income shortages, getting like high-quality fruits and vegetables is a big problem,” said Michel Nischan, founder of Wholesome Wave, which supports the programs at community health centers.

It is a win-win endeavour. Participants who qualify get tokens — or, in New York and Boston, Health Bucks — to spend on fruits and vegetables at local farmers’ markets. The farmers are reimbursed for the full value of their goods with dollars from community-based nonprofits and grants.

Participating farmers also benefit: They sell more produce, increasing their income on average nearly 37 percent. And they are able to hire more people, put more land in production, diversify crop plantings, and invest more in farm operations.

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