Just what the doctor ordered

Diabetes and heart disease are just two of the chronic illnesses linked to nutrition that plague underserved populations in Georgia. But when it comes to treating these illnesses, doctors tend to prescribe drugs to treat symptoms, leaving underlying big picture issues unaddressed. In this way, Big Pharma wins, and people suffer. But some local doctors have had enough. They’re rebelling by prescribing fruits and veggies, instead.

Dr. Stacie Schmidt, director of the Primary Care Center at Grady Hospital, identified that medicine alone was not sufficient to improve the lives of her patients. For many of these individuals, their lack of nutrition isn’t a choice, she says; it’s a lack of access to healthy food options. So, Dr. Schmidt and Grady Hospital joined forces with local food access organization Wholesome Wave Georgia to identify food insecure patients with chronic illnesses linked to nutrition. Then patients are enrolled in Grady’s Healthy Living program, which provides cooking classes and prescribes free produce for six months.

“It’s not just about the prescriptions that we provide,” says Schmidt. “Sometimes the exact prescriptions ... are just bandaids for the issue at hand. Day in and day out of just seeing one patient after the other that had the same issues, like obesity, really shaped the desire to focus on nutrition.”

Before partnering with Wholesome Wave Georgia, Schmidt received a grant through Emory’s FAME (Fostering the Academic Mission in the Emory Department of Medicine) grant program , designed to provide faculty with protected time to develop a project centered around improving patient care delivery. This time allowed her to create the Healthy Living class, and linking the class to Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) made perfect sense. Wholesome Wave Georgia also partners with other programs in different locations, like Project Open Hand on the Westside and the Harrisburg Family Health Care Clinic in Augusta.

Upon joining Grady’s program, patients attend nutrition classes and meet with healthcare providers for six months. After each session, the patients walk from Grady to Big Bethel Church where they pick up their fruit and vegetable prescriptions from Wholesome Wave. The prescription is equal to one dollar per day, per household member and consists of all local produce provided by the Common Market, a nonprofit food distributor that works with sustainable family farms.

For some participants, exposure to fruit and vegetables is an entirely new concept. Shelby Utter is a dietician with Project Open Hand and leads the cooking classes at Good Samaritan Health Center on the Westside. “You meet people who have never seen certain fruits and vegetables before,” she says. “Someone told me that she didn’t know that fruits and veggies grew in the ground, because growing up her family could only afford canned vegetables.”

Utter’s classes teach participants how to read nutrition labels, incorporate fruits and vegetables into daily life, and reinvent traditionally indulgent recipes into healthy alternatives like black bean brownies and cauliflower mashed potatoes.

Cristel McKenzie participated in Grady’s Healthy Living program last year and thrived in it so much so that she now works for Wholesome Wave as a “peer champion” providing encouragement and support to current participants. When she joined the program she was overweight and suffering so badly from a hip and ankle injury that even the quarter mile walk from Grady to Big Bethel was daunting. The classes, to her, were a revelation. “I was most intrigued about learning what was in my food,” says McKenzie, “They let you know what 20 grams of sugar looks like, what two grams looks like.” For her, that information was key in changing how she eats.

McKenzie says the most difficult challenge with the program is shaking old eating habits. “It’s hard to convert your family to new habits when they’re used to cooking with lard and fatback,” she explains. Now a total vegetable evangelist, McKenzie patronizes MARTA farmers markets and tells everyone she knows to eat their veggies. “If you got a little porch around your house,” she says, “get you some pots so you can grow some herbs, or grow some tomatoes whatever you can grow in a pot. Just get it and start growing.”

In the nearly two years since the programs joined forces, participants’ health has measurably improved. The holistic approach to wellness has led to direct decreases in weight and blood pressure. Skeptics can contend with McKenzie: “I think we’re guilty of judging before investigating,” she says. “People tell me how much they hate vegetables and I’ll say, ‘Have you ever even tried grilled zucchini?’ It’ll change your life.”

To learn more about Wholesome Wave’s Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, visit www.wholesomewavegeorgia.org/food-rx.

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