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Doctors prescribe fruit, veggies to fight obesity

By David Sharp
Associated Press Writer / August 17, 2010

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PORTLAND, Maine—Physicians have long told patients fighting obesity to eat their fruits and vegetables. Now they're writing prescriptions for it.

Health care providers are offering vouchers worth $1 per day to members of low-income families in Massachusetts and Maine participating in a new program. The idea is to boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables by providing one serving a day from local farmers.

The program, created by Connecticut-based Wholesome Wave, is formally launching Wednesday in Portland and Skowhegan, five days after it began in Massachusetts.

It will measure how the fresh produce affects blood pressure, weight and body mass index; blood-sugar levels; and participants' weight. It also collects data on physical activity.

In Portland, 24 Somali women participating in the program had little experience with fruits and vegetables, a luxury that they weren't accustomed to in refugee camps, said Amy Carrington, of Cultivating Community, which is administering the program in Maine.

"In the refugee camps and then in the United States, they tend to be at extreme high risk for diabetes as they switch to processed food," Carrington said.

In Massachusetts, the program is being implemented by Fitchburg-based Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, or CAVU. It is funded by money raised by Wholesome Wave and matched by the state Department of Agricultural Resources and Wellesley-based the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation.

Participants at community health centers in Holyoke, Lawrence and Boston are being chosen based on the level of obesity in the family, financial limitations that serve as a barrier to buying fresh produce, and compliance with obesity treatment protocol, organizers said.

In the initial year, it's expected to reach more than 100 families in Massachusetts and Maine. Organizers plan to expand to additional sites over the next year.

"What makes this program unique is the administration of prescription in the form of a fruit-and-vegetable prescription by a doctor," Wholesome Wave Chief Operating Officer Juliette Taylor-DeVries said.

"And it has tremendous positive effects on the communities because it invigorates the local economy and it provides a new revenue stream for local farmers -- and access and affordability to people who do not have access to fresh healthy food," she said.

In Maine, the program is targeting pregnant women and new mothers at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan, Carrington said.

The Portland program focuses on refugees, all of whom are considered to be diabetic or pre-diabetic or are pregnant, at the Riverton complex run by the Portland Housing Authority, Carrington said. The women already are participating in an exercise class, and the fruit and vegetables are delivered once a week.

Doctors at Mercy Hospital will follow the health of the women, who have already seen weight loss from the exercise program alone, Carrington said. For the past six weeks, the women have added fresh vegetables, along with strawberries, blueberries and melons, to their diet.

Before the program, the women stocked up on rice, pasta, meat and milk at the grocery store. "They weren't buying vegetables -- at all," Carrington said.

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Associated Press writer Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.

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