Veggie Rx is just what it sounds like: a doctor-ordered vegetable and fruit prescription. Why would a doctor prescribe fresh produce? Because fresh food can be used like medicine to manage and prevent diseases caused by eating an unhealthy diet. Diseases like heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
The reality is that even though our nation produces an ample supply of high-quality produce and whole foods, there are still many reasons why people do not eat a healthy diet on a regular basis. They may be experiencing poverty, or have limited access to culturally appropriate food. Or maybe they live in a food swamp – areas saturated with fast food outlets and convenience stores – and can’t get to a full grocery store. Our food culture is built for taste and profit, at the expense of health. The food is cheap, addictive and normalized. But you will also find a racial component to the story: sugary drink and junk food products are disproportionately marketed to people of color. Thus, communities of color have been hit the hardest by diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.
How did we get here?
What we’re seeing is the fallout from policies originating in the 1940s, when many Americans were malnourished and underweight because they lacked food of any kind. What has followed is decades of agricultural subsidies leading to the mass production of highly processed, nutrient-deficient foods that are strategically marketed and sold at low prices. For the last several decades, fast food and beverage companies have used subsidized products to create a culture of junk food, peddled on every street corner and in every store. These companies hire psychologists who specialize in the developmental stages of children and adolescents, to exploit their vulnerabilities to sell products. In fact, now they get social media influencers to do the job for them. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Americans are suffering from diseases caused by being overfed and under-nourished – known as high calorie malnutrition. Current adolescents and young adults are the third generation of people to be exposed to a high calorie, low nutrient diet.
The importance of first foods
It’s difficult to kick the habit of fast foods, which is why it’s so important to introduce young children to healthy foods as early as possible. That way, they develop a taste and curiosity for a variety of nutritious foods that can extend into childhood and adolescence – critical windows of time for development. While it’s possible to retrain your taste buds, it’s much easier to develop a taste for nutritious foods early in life. Incorporating fresh vegetables and fruits into a child’s first foods is vital for their physical and mental development, and sets them up for a healthy life. Veggie Rx is one way to make a difference, and get fresh food into the hands of those who need it most.
How Veggie Rx works
Every program is unique depending on where you live, but essentially they work like this: health care or social service providers “prescribe” food vouchers to those who either screen positive for a nutrition-related illness or who are living with hunger. Depending on the program, these vouchers are “cashed in” for fruits and vegetables at grocery stores, local food stands or farmers markets, or even as a weekly box of fresh food – as part of a Community Supported Agriculture share. Some Veggie Rx programs also offer free educational services like cooking skills and nutritional counseling. Because this type of program is locally-driven, it’s often a partnership between clinics or social service providers, and local food systems like food banks or farm collectives.
Economic and inter-generational benefits of Veggie Rx
Veggie Rx programs have an added benefit on local economies. If vouchers are redeemed at farmers markets, the farmer benefits from an increase in sales and customer base, creating a substantial ripple effect in the local economy. In addition, if the farmers market participates in the “Double Up Food Bucks” program – the Veggie Rx vouchers can go twice as far for SNAP, or food stamp, participants. And these programs do more than help an individual’s health condition; they’ve been found to benefit everyone in the participant’s household. A 2019 state-wide evaluation of Veggie Rx programs conducted by OHSU found an inter-generational benefit for everyone in the household, including children and older adults. The positive effect on parent’s or caregiver’s physical and mental health directly translated to the same for everyone in the family. Because the standard allotment for one Veggie Rx participant benefits the entire household, it’s clear these programs can be a cost-effective way to reduce chronic disease and improve inter-generational and community health – one family at a time.
Our industrialized food system and fast-food environments are driving a multi-generational public health crisis, and we are seeing the consequences of this fast-food culture experiment. The rising rates of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity are causing suffering and they are a burden on our society. Research has shown the importance of nutrient-rich foods in the diet – especially during pregnancy, lactation, as a young child and through adolescence. These critical windows of time are when chronic disease risk is established for this generation and the next. We can make a difference by expanding creative approaches like Veggie Rx programs and combining them with other efforts like community gardens, stocking fresh foods in convenience stores, participating in Community Supported Agriculture, increasing SNAP and Supplemental Security Income and by supporting farmers markets.
Find a Veggie Rx program in Oregon near you
Oregon State University’s Extension Service
Other Oregon resources
Count the available fruits and vegetables
Count the available fruit and vegetable offerings at your corner market, and on menus in the next week. Notice their where they are and how they are highlighted.
Find a Veggie Rx near you
Find a Veggie Rx program in your area. Make a call or send an email to find out how you can participate as a recipient or a volunteer.
Create a new Veggie Rx Program
Don't have a Veggie Rx near you? Research models in nearby communities. Talk to your local farmers market, public health department, or health clinic to gauge interest in starting one. Find a group that has been discussing and offer your support.