Michigan Association of Health Plans

Michigan health care providers find success with “prescriptions” for fresh produce and exercise

While most Michiganders fill their prescriptions at pharmacies, others do so at their local farmers market or park. Health care providers across the state are administering innovative programs that prescribe doses of local fruits and vegetables and injections of exercise.

One of the longest-running examples is Washtenaw County’s “prescription for health” program, which provides county residents with coupons for fresh fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets. Piloted in 2010, the program has documented success for more than a decade. The Washtenaw County Health Department (WCHD) partners with health care providers who enroll income-challenged patients who have, or are at risk for, chronic disease. The WCHD gives patients $100 worth of tokens redeemable for fresh produce at participating farmers markets. In addition, peer community health workers build relationships with participants, sharing recipes, healthy living tips, and friendly conversations about their health concerns.

Prescription for health program participants can exchange these tokens and tickets for healthy food.

“It’s such a fabulous program. It can help someone wanting access to fruits and vegetables make healthy behavior changes, and also helps our local economy,” says Ariane Donnelly, WCHD health promotion coordinator.

Every year, participants have reported increasing fresh produce and decreasing unhealthy foods in their diets. During the last tally in 2019, 90% of participants reported that their improved diets had helped them manage chronic health conditions. And the extra $33,412 in tokens spent at farmers markets was a great boost to the farmers and vendors who grew and sold the produce. Donnelly says she’s heard from participants who lost weight, were able to stop taking a medication, or reversed prediabetes as a result of the program.

“I just love how our participants are intent on making healthy eating or living changes as goals for their lives,” she says.

Dayna Popkey, Ypsilanti Farmers Market manager and nutrition manager; and Ariane Donnelly, Washtenaw County Health Department health promotion coordinator, at the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace.

In 2016, WCHD published a Prescription for Health Program Implementation Guide to help other organizations replicate the program with tips on program planning, implementation, evaluation, and sample materials. A checklist helps organizations determine if they are ready to implement a prescription for health program in their community.

“We had learned a lot of lessons along the way and had a lot of people interested in hearing from us. We wanted to present this for everyone to be able to use and not have to recreate the wheel,” Donnelly says. “Fruits and vegetables provide so many nutrients that are important to our health. Food can really be medicine — and help reduce and manage chronic disease.”

Henry’s Groceries yields healthy ROI

While it’s not a traditional prescription for health program, Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) has also experienced impressive results providing healthy foods to populations in need. HFHS’ “Henry’s Groceries” program compensates Gleaners Community Food Bank to deliver a bi-weekly box of healthy foods to food-insecure patients with chronic health conditions. The boxes include a mix of fresh produce, shelf-stable items, milk, cheese, and protein, with servings portioned to match the size of the recipient’s family.

“It’s a great mix of fresh, wholesome, nutritious food,” says Alexander Plum, HFHS director of clinical and social health integration. “There are boxes for folks who eat halal, folks on dialysis, and vegetarians, as well. We also send menu guides so folks can experiment with new recipes.”

Launched as a pilot three years ago, Henry’s Groceries began by delivering food to 200 food-insecure adult patients living in Detroit, Hamtramck, and Dearborn. Intended to help them manage and improve chronic health conditions while reducing emergency room visits and hospital readmissions, the program evaluation found a 95% patient satisfaction rate and an unprecedented 98% patient follow-through.

Staff make a delivery of healthy food to a Henry’s Groceries participant.

HFHS not only recouped its initial investment of $250,000 through cost savings, but also saved an additional $400,000 in projected costs that the patients would have incurred without the program’s intervention. With the help of a $500,000 grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, HFHS is investing $1 million to expand the program to 1,000 children and adults.

“When we provide the box for the entire family based on the number of children in the home, we’re hoping we’ll see changes in healthy behaviors as children adopt those healthier eating habits,” says Dr. Stacy Leatherwood, an HFHS pediatric primary care provider involved in the program. “Healthy foods are really important to disease prevention, especially for children. When they make unhealthy food choices, that sets them up for chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. By helping them make healthier choices, they can prevent those.”

This article originally appeared in Second Wave Media. Read more here.

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