New York City is testing a new obesity prevention program that promotes eating fresh fruits and vegetables by giving patients “prescriptions” for the healthy products.
The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program will allocate $2 coupons called “Health Bucks” to low-income New Yorkers who might develop a heart condition or chronic illness if they don’t change their diets. The pilot program will begin at two hospitals in Harlem and the South Bronx. In both neighborhoods, one in four adults is obese and more than nine in ten adults reported eating less than the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables each day.
Tying the program to hospitals allows doctors to track participants’ progress over a four month period by monitoring their weight and body mass index. Participants will also have access to nutritional and dietary counseling.
The fruit and vegetable program represents a major breakthrough in obesity prevention for low-income patients, who are often excluded from insurance that covers obesity treatment. Medicaid benefits for obesity encompass three main coverage categories: nutritional consultation, drug therapy, and bariatric surgery. However, the journal Public Health Reports found that only eight states’ Medicaid programs cover all three categories, and 20 states’ programs explicitly exclude nutritional counseling.
The American Medical Association recently classified obesity as a disease, in part to convince insurance companies to better fund programs that treat obesity. Moreover, public health experts have noted that preventative measures, such as nutrition programs, are among the best ways to tackle the obesity epidemic and its related ailments, such as heart disease and diabetes. Between 2011 and 2012, the adult obesity rate ticked up by just 0.2 percent — the slowest rise in a decade — largely thanks to an increase in localized efforts to prevent obesity.
The prescriptions will be given to 140 residents in the New York program’s initial run. If the patients are successful in losing weight, the city plans to extend the program to more low-income areas.