Georgia program offers patients 'prescription' for free food

- Inside Big Bethel AME Church, a few blocks from Grady Memorial Hospital in Downtown Atlanta, Yvonne Brown is sitting in on a crash course in what used to be a real weak point for her, snacking.

The 59-year old mother and grandmother struggles with her weight and has both hypertension and arthritis.

But Brown said the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program has helped her rethink the way she eats and the snacks she chooses.

“So now it's more healthy snacks,” Brown said. “I haven't quite let go all of them. But it's more healthy snacks, which is good because I have high blood pressure. And I noticed my blood pressure did come down.”

Everyone in the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program here at Grady is a primary care patient at the hospital.

Dr. Stacie Schmidt, Director of Grady's Primary Care Center, said the patients are enthusiastic about the program.

“Patients seem engaged,” Dr. Schmidt said. “They're loving it. They're learning.”

Some of the class participants were referred by their doctors because they're dealing with food-related chronic illness, like diabetes, hypertension or obesity.

Some live in urban communities with little access to farmer's markets and fresh produce. And many struggle from time to time to keep enough food on their table.

This class, one of five run by Sara Berney's organization, Wholesome Wave Georgia, offers not just tools for healthy eating, it offers weekly vouchers for fresh, locally-grown produce.

Once a week, program members choose what they want to take home.

They receive $1 a day's worth of fruit and vegetables for each member of their household, which for a family of 4 adds up to about $28 a week in produce.

It's all free.

“They'll be lugging big bags full, heaping full of fresh produce,” Berney said. “So it really can go a long way. And it really provides that access to families that may not otherwise be able to purchase it and afford it.”

Grady's is the largest of 5 Fruit and Vegetable Prescription programs run by Wholesome Wave Georgia.

The hospitals primary care physicians like Dr. Stacie Schmidt refer patients, and help teach the hands-on classes

“So what we try to focus on with diet is setting very simple, very measurable goals, that you can do at home in your daily life,” said Dr. Schmidt.

For example, you love sodas and drink three a day.

“We're going to work really hard with you to actually decrease that to 2 sodas a day, or 1 soda a day,” Schmidt said. “Realizing that it's really difficult for someone who loves something to just cut it out completely.”

Group members encouraged to share goals with doctors and one another,

Their primary care physicians add their goals to their charts, Schmidt said, and check in to see how the class members are doing.

Yvonne Brown, who completed the program last year, said she's eating more fruit and vegetables, so is her family.

She said the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program makes getting healthier so much easier.

But Brown worries the people who need the program -- and the fresh produce it offers -- the most may not know this resource is here.

“So I would tell them, try it out,” Brown said. “You'll enjoy the fruits and vegetables, you'll enjoy the recipes and most of all you'll enjoy the friends because you make a lot of friends here.”

Berney said Wholesome Wave Georgia's program is relatively new, but it's already started to pay off in tangible ways.

She said many patients are seeing their blood pressure and blood sugar levels drop, helping them get better control over their health.

To learn more about the program, visit wholesomewavegeorgia.org/food-rx/.

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