Doctors are writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables to combat obesity.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 12.31.21 PM Doctors have been writing a whole lot of prescriptions lately at New York’s Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, but most of these ‘scrips aren’t for the pharmaceuticals and drugs you’d expect. Instead, these doctors are treating their patients – mostly poor children with obesity and other health problems – with a cure that has been conspicuously absent from modern medicine in the U.S.: fruits and vegetables. Under their doctor’s supervisions, these patients are filling their baskets with carrots, spinach, and tomatoes instead of Xenical, Phentermine-topiramate, and Benzphetamine.

The program is called the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program but usually goes by the clever acronym, FVRx for short. It’s helping inner city kids with weight related issues with a common-sense effectiveness that no expensive drugs, education campaigns, or even surgeries have before. It started with 50 patients in New York at the Harlem Hospital Center a couple of years ago and quickly spread to three other NYC hospitals, medical centers in Boston, and now is taking seed at least 30 health centers around the country.

The simple-genius behind FVRx started with a chef named Michael Nischan who was dismayed when his two young sons were diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes. When Nischan found out the disease can be reversed and even eradicated with a healthy diet and exercise, the light bulb went on that we should be incorporating fresh food and better diets into our formal medical treatment. But there were so many barriers to get veggies onto the plates of poor, uneducated, and inner city kids.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 12.31.56 PMSo he founded Wholesome Wave, which connects low-income people with local produce as part of a medical mandate. The program works just like any treatment plan, where patients enrolled in the program meet with a doctor or nutritionist once a week to get their blood pressure, insulin levels, and weight measured.

But before they leave the doc’s office, they’re presented with a written prescription that the patients can cash in for Health Bucks. These Health Bucks are accepted at 140 farmers’ markets throughout the city. Each patient is prescribed $1 per day in Health Bucks per person of their family who needs them.

While $28 a week for a family of four may not seem like it goes a long way to buy fruit and vegetables, but the program allows their Health Buck to buy at least twice as much as face value. The farmers love it because they’re reimbursed the full value of their fruits and veggies when they redeem the bucks, the difference made up grants and community non-profits that fund the program. Farmers also see a huge increase in attendance at the markets and in their profits – up about 37% on average per participating farmer. In turn, they’re able to hire more people, plant more crops, use more land, and reinvest in their local agricultural endeavors. The children and the families who are written prescriptions are also given nutritional education, recipes, and tactics how to sustain the good diet, like freezing veggies in preparation for the winter months when the markets shut down.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 12.32.16 PMSo far, New York’s FVRx program is reaching thousands of children and their families who desperately need better eating and health practices, who otherwise live in “Food Deserts” where they eat most of their meals at fast food chains like McDonalds or out of local convenience stores like 7-11 or neighborhood bodegas.

With two years worth of data under in their basket, the hospitals are doctors are beyond encouraged by the results. They found:

– 97 percent of children in the program and 96 percent of their families ate more fruits and vegetables.

– 90 percent of families shopped at farmers’ markets weekly or more than two or three times a month.

– 70 percent understood more about the health value of fruits and vegetables.

– Almost 40 percent of participating children lowered their Body Mass Index after just four months.

–  Nearly all participants lost weight and saw a drop in blood pressure.

FVRx-Process1-1024x682Doctors and program workers are even more encouraged by the anecdotal feedback they get from children. Many of them have never even eaten some vegetables before, and go through a process of being bewildered, experimental, and then empowered by trying cucumbers, squash, and broccoli for the first time. The children especially say it reduces their anxiety, helps them focus at school, they sleep better, and losing weight through the healthier diet actually gives them more energy and empowers them to exercise more, which starts a positive cycle of wellness in their lives.

In the long run, these programs will cost far less than treating obesity, especially with pharmaceutical drugs that can cause side effects or even death from adverse reactions. Childhood obesity especially has reached epidemic levels, with 1 in 3 U.S. children and adolescents obese or overweight. Likewise, 34.9% of adults are overweight or obese, which adds up to 78.6 million Americans. Obesity and the medicals issues it brings disproportionately affects people of lower socio economic status and minority groups. The total cost is upwards of $147 billion as of 2008 and growing every year, a bill we all end up paying for.