Finding affordable and nutritious food is often challenging for families living on low incomes. This affects their health outcomes in many ways, including contributing to higher rates of chronic diseases like hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.
To address diet-related chronic illnesses among low-income populations, nonprofit organization DC Greens offers a program called Produce Rx as part of its food justice work. The health intervention enables medical professionals to prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables to a Medicaid patient in Ward 8 of Washington, D.C. — a neighborhood with the city’s highest rate of food insecurity and one of the lowest median family incomes.
Doctors and patients both need more tools to address food insecurity and diet-related chronic illness. Through Produce Rx, our healthcare system can be a driver to get patients access to the healthy food that they want and need.Lauren Shweder Biel, Executive Director of DC Greens
How it Helps
Produce Rx uses a food-as-medicine approach to improve health outcomes while reducing insurance costs. Residents of Ward 8 with diabetes experience a 27% hospital admission risk at the end of the month, when they are most likely to run out of resources. These visits are expensive for insurers and patients, so reducing the risk and improving health overall are both important.
Here’s how Produce Rx works: Medical professionals at three participating Federally Qualified Health Clinics (FQHCs) can prescribe a weekly $20 voucher for people to get fresh fruits and vegetables from a partnering grocery store. They also have an opportunity to meet with a nutritionist to discuss their specific dietary needs. Not only do the vouchers help people eat more healthy food, they also make it more likely for recipients to refill other prescriptions on time and see a primary care physician more regularly.
Physicians track relevant health indicators like BMI and blood glucose levels to measure the program’s impact. In a 2012 pilot of Produce Rx, the program reduced BMI in half of participants and increased proactive medical appointments by 54%. The latest iteration of Produce Rx benefits a group of Medicaid patients and their households, laying the groundwork for future expansion throughout D.C.
Through the program, DC Greens is also measuring the impact on insurer costs — data that can advance future investments in produce prescription programs. In 2019, DC Greens teamed up with AmeriHealth DC, the region’s largest Medicaid provider, and Socially Determined, a company that helps insurance companies evaluate the cost-effectiveness of health interventions, to gain more insight. By working to prove the value of healthy food as a medical intervention in certain cases, DC Greens is making it easier for low-income families to get the nutritious food they need.