You may be able to get free food with a healthy food prescription! These programs are popping up everywhere as part of the USDA’s Nutrition Incentive Program. If you are a low income American, you may be able to get vouchers that you can exchange for free food from your local farmers markets!
In this article, we’ll review what a healthy food prescription is, how it works, and how you can get one.
What is a healthy food prescription?
Many of the health problems faced by modern Americans are tied to diet-related concerns. For example, obesity, tooth decay, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and osteoporosis are just a few conditions that have been linked to certain types of eating.
A healthy food prescription is basically a declaration that you would benefit from eating healthier food. Through the USDA’s Nutrition Incentive Program (as explained below), some providers are able to actually prescribe you healthy food and provide you with vouchers that can be redeemed for free food from your local farmers market. This is an incredible opportunity to get healthier food at no cost to you.
The hope is that these programs will improve the health of low income Americans by improving their access to nutritious food.
Why do we need healthy food prescriptions?
The problem, of course, is that low income Americans can’t afford healthy food on their own.
Healthy food generally costs more than junk food because it’s fresher. It costs more to produce and store. A box of pasta can stay on the shelf for years without significant decay but a fresh head of lettuce can only last a few weeks at most. Since it costs more to produce, store and replace these items, the stores pass that extra cost onto the consumer in the form of higher prices.
Unfortunately, that means that people living on a meager food stamps diet are more likely to eat processed, unhealthy foods. That’s often the only way that people can afford to eat.
Healthy food prescriptions allow people who are most at risk to get healthier food for free. This can help improve their eating habits and their health.
How does it work?
Healthy food prescriptions are made possible by the USDA’s Gus Shumacher Nutrition Incentive Program. This is often just called the Nutrition Incentive Program or GusNIP for short. This program is incredible: it helps low income Americans by providing free food and it supports local agriculture, too!
Some organizations that offer GusNIP incentives do this through a dollar-matching SNAP benefit and others do it by providing healthy food prescriptions. For example, FreshRX is an example of an organization that is offering free food vouchers through this program.
These programs are run locally so the details vary a lot between locations. There isn’t one national organization that is offering these benefits.
However, as we’ve researched markets all over the country, we’ve noticed some definite themes. The remainder of this article will reflect what we have noticed as we have researched different programs in different areas.
Who is eligible?
Although the details vary by location, these programs typically aim to provide free fruits and vegetables to low income people who have been diagnosed with certain diet-related health concerns like diabetes.
You may be eligible if you have one of the following conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Dental concerns
- Heart problems
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
In some areas, you do not need a medical diagnosis in order to get a healthy food prescription. Some organizations will offer these incentives to seniors, parents with young children, or others who are at risk due to a lack of access to healthy food.
How do you get one?
Usually, you will need to visit with a participating doctor or attend a special class to get a healthy food prescription. In many areas, you just need to attend a simple nutrition class or a cooking demonstration in order to pick up your vouchers. It’s not complicated but space is often limited, so it’s important to register for the program near you right away.
In order to get a healthy food prescription, you need to find a program in your area that offers them. We have reported on a few that we have found but these programs are constantly popping up in new areas and it’s hard to keep track.
Here’s a list of programs we’ve found so far:
- Arizona: Farm Fresh Produce, COPE Food Access
- California: Produce Prescription Project, ¡MÁS FRESCO!
- Florida: FreshRx
- Georgia: Georgia Food 4 Health
- Louisiana: Healthy Families Produce
- Montana: FAST Food Pharmacy
- New Mexico: COPE Food Access
- Ohio: Produce Prescription by Produce Perks
- Utah: COPE Food Access
- Vermont: Health Care Share
If you don’t see your area in this list, I recommend calling 211 or contacting your local Community Action Agency, Area Agency on Aging, or visiting your local Farmers Market information booth to see if they are aware of any programs like this in your area. If you find one we haven’t listed, please let us know so that we can report on it!
Do fresh food prescriptions work?
There have been many pilot programs around the country that have shown great success. This is why we’re starting to see programs like this pop up in more areas of the country in recent years. Healthy food prescriptions really work!
A 2014 study of the Fresh Prescription Program showed that 71% of participants were able to manage their health better after participating in the program. Of those who participated, 44% reported eating less unhealthy food during the week and 85% reported eating more fruits and vegetables.
A 2013 study of the Wholesome Wave program in Washington DC found that 41% of children who participated experienced a decrease in their BMI scores. More than half of all participants increased their fruit consumption by more than two cups on average!
These programs can be immensely successful depending on how they are administered. I’m excited to see more pilot programs pop up in other areas of the country!
If you are a low income American struggling with a diet-related health concern, you may be able to get a healthy food prescription that can provide you with free fruits and vegetables. This can improve your nutrition and your health without straining your budget. These programs, which are funded through the USDA’s Nutrition Incentive Program, also support local farmers. It’s a win for everyone!