Farmer's market equals pharmacy as doctors prescribe fresh food

Farmer's market equals pharmacy as doctors prescribe fresh foodThe diagnosis for many children in the U.S. is a doozy: obesity and poverty at once. The prognosis is dim, as many children don't even recognize a potato in its skin, and can't identify a kiwi fruit. The prescription is novel: go to the farmer's market, and here, take this coupon.

The problem many families in America today face seems oxymoronic from a distance but, up close, is not much of a surprise. Despite rising unemployment and a record proportion of families on federal food aid, or SNAP, more and more poor Americans are also dangerously overweight.

Part of this is a systemic problem that's beyond the reach of the individual or the doctor; our agriculture incentives are tied to so-called "monocultures," high-carbohydrate crops that are processed until they're derived of most of their nutritional value. All that's left of the corn, soy and wheat is calories and fat (and a good measure of chemicals from pesticides and processing); these fill up the stomachs of both our poor families and our livestock, and the cheap meat that results is equally low in nutrition and high in the bad stuff. Presto: health budget-swamping crises of diabetes, heart disease, and many types of cancer.

A recent portrait of a family on SNAP on NPR depicted a well-meaning but ultimately destructive journey through a month's worth of groceries. The fridge, freezer and pantry held plenty of sugary prepared foods; 20 boxes of breakfast cereal bought on sale, frozen corn dogs, blue ice pops. Mom wanted to buy fresh food, organic produce, but said to get enough of it to feed her family would "blow half of your budget on fresh fruits and vegetables in a week's time, easy." Even though the family gardened, the kids often ate the easy-to-reach stuff; a hot dog bun, a blue ice pop.

Enter produce coupons handed out by doctors in Massachusetts. They amount to $1 per family member per day and can be only used for fruits and vegetables -- enough, in my family, to buy all the in-season fruit we can eat, and vegetables to boot if we shop sensibly. Yes, even at the farmer's market. In other areas, farmer's markets offer special tokens for SNAP recipients so that financially-strapped families can buy some of their food direct from the farmer; several areas have developed programs to match SNAP funds up to $5 or $10 per visit. Here in Portland, Ore., those programs are funded by neighborhood associations and non-profits.

Research shows, however, that prescriptions are better than charity to get people to change their behavior (much has been done on smoking cessation, for instance), meaning this may be the best way to get overweight low-income families picking up peaches, apples and kale instead of potato chips and soda. Better than Jamie Oliver alternately shouting and crying with you, for instance? Yes, perhaps.

In a world with so many messages about what's healthful from different sorts of media, people trust doctors to give them the real scoop. And if that trust is paired with a little help financially, making fresh fruit and vegetables essentially free, it could be enough to introduce a kid to a kiwi.

The hope is that, once children and good food meet, a beautiful lifelong friendship will result.

It could happen to you.
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