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A Prescription for Produce

Program promotes fresh produce intake

Participants in University of Idaho Extension nutritional education classes in Twin Falls County are often referred from an unlikely source — their children’s doctors. At Family Health Services in southcentral Idaho, clinicians screen pediatric patients for those at-risk for chronic conditions. Instead of prescribing medicine, they prescribe more fruits and vegetables — and nutrition classes to help caregivers understand why this improves children’s health.

“Studies say that if you are eating fruits and vegetables, then chances are that your risk of chronic disease is lower,” said Siew Guan Lee, UI Extension educator in Twin Falls County.

Lee has partnered with Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit, for the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription (FV Rx) program.

Though fruit and vegetable consumption lowers health risks, most children and adolescents do not consume the recommended amount. In the FV Rx program, not only can caregivers attend nutrition classes, but the entire family shares a reloadable credit card they can use to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Patients qualifying for the FV Rx program get more access to fruits and vegetables. For six months, they are provided up to $60 a month they can use for produce at partnering stores,” Lee said.

“We influence parents so the parents can influence their children,” said Annie Roe, UI Extension specialist and director of Eat Smart Idaho. “We ask them to track how often their children eat fruits and vegetables, so we can see the impact on these families.”

Woman presenting to women in children
UI Extension Educator Siew Guan Lee presents a nutrition education class as part of the FV Rx program.

Small Steps

An additional $60 a month might not seem like much when supplementing family food budgets, but Lee and Roe see the difference it can make long term.

“$60 is a small investment that may have a big return,” Roe said. “If the whole family — kids and adults — meet dietary guidelines after the program, then it could lower chronic health risks, which may lower community medical costs down the line.”

The dollar amount isn’t all that participants gain. They get instruction on nutrition, physical activity, food safety and practical applications in managing their food resources. Classes are offered in English and Spanish.

“We give store tours,” said Lee. “We help them learn information about the foods they are seeing and how to look for the best price.”

Grocery store tours last two hours. As participants navigate through the store, nutrition instructors teach them to determine the best items for their family.

“Parents said tours were helpful because even though they thought they knew this stuff already, they admitted to being overwhelmed with so many products, and they didn’t really know what to pick,” Lee said.

Store tours also gave low-income families ideas on how to stretch their food dollars.

“Some parents knew the benefits of fruits and vegetables but also thought they couldn’t afford it,” said Lee. “So, we talked to them about how they could use the money they do have in their food budget to include produce.”

Group of people inside grocery store
Grocery store tours help participants determine the best items for their family.

Catch a Rainbow

In the nutrition classes, banners remind participants about the instructors’ helpful tip to “Catch a Rainbow.” It’s not a slogan selling candy, but a nod to the color variety in fruits and vegetables, which signals nutrient diversity. If people are timid about trying unknown options and fear they won’t like a new food, they may not take a chance on wasting precious food dollars.

“Food is only nutrition if it’s eaten,” said Roe.

With an extra $60 a month, participants felt bold enough to experiment and try produce they wouldn’t normally try. Lee and Roe found the extra money gave participants the option to eat new things.

“Families bought food items like dragon fruit or papaya,” Lee said. “They were excited to try things they hadn’t tried before. Parents told me their families ate new fruits and vegetables and reported that their kids loved it.”

It’s not just the kids that are changing their eating habits. Entire families are eating better.

“It’s not just the kids eating the food, but everyone in the family increased their fruit and vegetable consumption,” Lee said. “Their habits are changing. A couple participants told me they lost some weight after taking classes. Others reported drinking fewer sugar-sweetened drinks. It’s a positive takeaway.”

Trickle-Down Benefits

Lee said a big part of their success can be attributed to community partners. Through Wholesome Wave and the FV Rx program, participants were provided free yogurt from Chobani, which also funded the program. Local Walmart, Fred Meyer and Smith’s accepted the FV Rx reloadable card and allowed Lee to provide store tours as a practical application.

“We have a relationship with the local stores,” said Lee. “I collaborated with the store managers to bring in my classes, and it’s a win-win for the store because I’m bringing customers. We have a good partnership with them.”

While the program has completed, Lee is hopeful that clinicians can still prescribe patients fruits and vegetables and refer them to UI Extension nutrition education classes.

“We’re still working with the clinic,” Lee said. “They help us promote better nutrition and physical activity.”

“It’s important to note that we are setting up these youth to develop habits earlier in life, and that will help in the big picture,” Roe said. “Those habits will decrease disease in the community, lower Medicare and other healthcare costs. Even if you don’t benefit directly from the FV Rx program, there are community benefits.”

Article by Aubrey Stribling, University of Idaho Extension
Photos provided by Siew Guan Lee, University of Idaho Extension
Published in September 2020


Woman holding box of Chobani yogurt
Participants were provided free yogurt from Chobani, which also funded the FV Rx program.

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