Prescriptions for Produce: A Step Towards Food Justice

According to this New York Times article ((Singer, Natasha, “Eat an Apple (Doctor’s Orders),” New York Times, August 12, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/business/13veggies.html?_r=1)), doctors at three health care centers in Massachusetts are handing out “prescriptions” (coupons) for patients to use at farmers’ markets. These coupons are part of an effort to promote healthy eating and combat childhood obesity in communities disproportionately affected by diet-related disease.

This is an exciting new program that highlights the importance of food and diet on people’s overall health. Individual health and well-being are affected directly by a person’s diet, and diets heavy on processed and fast foods, or low on fresh fruits and vegetables, lead to preventable illnesses such as diabetes, childhood obesity, and heart disease.

On a broader level, a community’s access to healthy, fresh, organic foods is a socio-economic issue that has clear health outcomes that can be seen throughout the population. Many low-income communities (both rural and inner-city) and communities of color have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables and, as a result, they suffer significantly higher rates of disease. This makes access to healthy, fresh foods a justice issue in poor communities of color and rural communities which suffer from inequitable health outcomes in comparison to their white counterparts.

The Massachusetts program is a great first step, but we must also investigate and address the structural barriers that make a program like this hard to replicate and hard to reach its full potential. Farmer’s markets do not exist in all communities and are particularly difficult to find in communities of color that desperately need access to fresh foods. Offering vouchers or “prescriptions” that can be used in grocery and convenience stores would help eliminate accessibility barriers in rural or inner-city communities, giving even more people a chance to eat and live better.

The prescription program also presents an important for people to learn and understand why junk and convenience foods are so much cheaper than fresh, healthy or organic foods in the first place. Through the Farm Bill, the federal government gives subsidies to large corporate farms that produce soybean and corn, the basis for most junk foods, so they can sell them at a price that is well below the cost it actually takes to grow them. This is why a bag of potato chips is often cheaper than a head of broccoli in our local grocery stores, which makes it virtually impossible for communities that have had generations of economic barriers to feed their families healthy, fresh foods. With so many people on limited budgets and balancing busy family schedules, it’s easy to see why reaching for an inexpensive, ready-to-open bag of potatoes fried in corn oil is an easier choice than raw vegetables that need to be prepared and cooked.

If the Farm Bill was changed to provide subsidies to smaller-scale family farms that feed their local communities healthy, fresh produce, people of all incomes would be better able to choose healthy food options that inspire health and wellness. Once people better understand the link between where their food comes from and its effects on their health, they can begin demand the change that they deserve.

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