Programs that provide free or discounted produce to patients with diet-related illnesses may lead to positive health outcomes and improve food security, a new study from Tufts University finds.
The study analyzed nine produce-prescription programs and found them to be associated with many benefits for patients, including lower blood pressure and improved biomarkers of cardiometabolic health.
The goal of such programs, according to a statement, is to remove financial barriers to fruit and vegetable access for individuals with diet-related illnesses. These programs provide vouchers, debit cards or loyalty cards for free or discounted produce at grocery and retail stores or farmers markets.
“We were excited to see the results, which showed that participants who receive this incentive consume more fruits and vegetables, yielding clinically relevant outcomes,” said senior study author Fang Fang Zhang in a statement. “We need larger-scale implementation of these programs, which may play a role in improving care, in particular for lower-income adults with obesity, diabetes, or hypertension.”
The researchers analyzed surveys and medical records from over 1,800 children and 2,000 adults who were identified as low-income. The participants were enrolled in produce-prescription programs in 12 U.S. states from 2014-2020 for an average of six months. Most participants had been referred to these programs by their physicians.
The programs covered an average of $43 per household per month in the adult programs and $112 per month in the kids versions.
The study's authors noted that further research on the topic may be needed, as the study lacked a control group and some of the programs were in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"There is much we still need to learn about which programs are likely to be effective, how long they should operate, what happens to patient health outcomes when they end and more,” said first author Kurt Hager. “The future of food is medicine will likely see pilots and expansion occurring alongside ongoing evaluations that will continually improve the quality of services provided.”
Food-as-medicine programs have been popping up more often as foodservice operations and retailers seek to play a part in combating food insecurity and diet-related disease.
Last year at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health, the Biden administration announced that $8 billion would be committed to reducing diet-related health conditions and ending hunger in the country by 2030.
Shortly thereafter, grocery delivery company Instacart rolled out two new initiatives aimed to promote healthy food choices: Fresh Funds, which allows patients to place Instacart orders from an array of foods curated by their healthcare provider and to do so using SNAP benefits, and Care Carts, which enables doctors to send custom grocery deliveries to patients.
Some healthcare facilities, such as Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis, also offer food-as-medicine programs. Eskenazi's Fresh for You Market, a grocery store and kitchen, features a voucher program aimed to remove financial obstacles to buying food for patients and staff.