Food as medicine? Acadiana doctors to start prescribing fruit and veggies

A woman points at baskets of sweet potatoes and ginger set up on a table while another woman looks at the produce.
Martine Colin, left, looks over fresh produce, including ginger and sweet potatoes, for sale by Nicole Johnson at the Fightingville Fresh Community Farmers Market on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Lafayette. Photo by Brad Bowie/The Acadiana Advocate

Eating your greens can be a chore, but for many families, it’s also a financial burden. A program that treats “food as medicine” hopes to change that by helping families buy more fruits and vegetables to combat malnutrition, obesity and associated health issues along the way.

Led by No Kid Hungry, a Washington D.C.-based campaign with the goal of fighting childhood hunger, and funded through a USDA grant, the Fresh Connect program distributes pre-loaded debit cards to eligible families that they can use to purchase produce at grocery stores and farmers markets. Following a two year pilot on the Northshore, the program is now expanding to Acadia, Lafayette and St. Landry parishes.

To be eligible, families have to live in one of the selected parishes and have at least one child who’s enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program. “When kids have access to healthy foods, they have better health outcomes,” said Sarah Mills, manager of health strategies with Share Our Strength, the nonprofit behind the No Kid Hungry campaign.

Through the program, the organization is hoping to enroll 600 families, who will receive debit cards loaded with $40 each month, for six months, which they can use to purchase fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Katie Queen, a physician who has worked with the program through a pediatric clinic in Bogalusa said the impacts of not including sufficient amounts of produce in a family’s diet are significant, especially for children.

Queen said many of her patients suffer from obesity, but also malnutrition, as a result of a lack of whole foods in their diets, leading to developmental delays in children and other health issues among adults. In total, Queen estimates that roughly half of her patients experienced some type of developmental delay as a result of malnutrition.

“I can think of a couple of toddlers who didn't learn to walk because they didn't have the muscles, because they didn't have the protein in their diet,” Queen said. And while the program focuses on produce, Queen said it helps close a gap in families’ ability to access and afford a well-rounded diet.

“The program addresses malnutrition in general,” Queen said. “Not just not just obesity, but malnutrition. And who's the most malnourished are our families in rural and underserved areas.”

Acadiana has a hunger problem, one that is expected to worsen as a result of the state’s decision not to participate in a federal program that would have provided families with school-aged children with additional funds for food while school is out during the summer. 

“We wanted to pinpoint some of the parishes where we can make the biggest impact,” Mills said of the organization’s selection process.

In the past, the campaign has focused on providing assistance in school settings. Through the Fresh Connect program, it is now hoping to use providers of medical services as another avenue to connect with families in need.

“Pediatricians are a trusted source of information and have relationships with families,” Queen said.

This approach also offers an opportunity to track results in a different way, said Josh Trautwein, co-founder and CEO of About Fresh, the company that provides the technical infrastructure around the debit cards usd to deliver the benefits.

About Fresh’s platform allows the company to track purchasing data and match it up with health data to analyze outcomes. “We know anecdotally that just increasing household purchasing power for food affords an immediate sense of stability,” Trautwein said. But soon, he added, the company will be publishing the results of an analysis of its data that will help track health outcomes more directly.

“We know that we're having that impact today from talking with our customers, but we're excited to get at some of those deeper biomedical and economic insights,” Trautwein said.

Eventually, the organizations behind the program hope that the “food as medicine” approach can be integrated into states’ Medicaid programs, allowing and incentivizing families to purchase healthier foods. Some states, including Arkansas and North Carolina, are already running pilot programs to provide food assistance through their Medicaid programs.

Families, especially those with low household incomes who live in rural areas, face many obstacles in adding more produce to their diet, Queen said. Their only local store might be a Dollar General with a limited selection of produce. An abundance of fast food options might make processed, unhealthy food the more economic choice.

“It's a lot cheaper for them to go get the hamburger at McDonalds than to go get an apple for $1,” Queen said. “If you don't incentivize fresh fruits and vegetables, it's just, it's hard to get families to make that choice.”

The program is currently enrolling families in Acadiana through the parishes’ public health clinics, Acadiana Pediatrics and the Our Lady of Lourdes system. But even families whose doctor might not yet be participating can apply for a card online, as long as they can provide proof of residence and Medicaid enrollment.

Local retail partners include Walmart and Albertsons, but Trautwein said About Fresh is currently working to get local farmers markets on board as well.