by Bonnie Kaplan, PhD & Julia Rucklidge, PhD

In a previous blog, we talked about the fact that nutrition and poverty are linked, and how poor nutrition is likely a mediator variable in the relationship between poverty and illness. In other words, it is the suboptimal nutrition associated with low income which likely explains much of the vulnerability to mental and physical illness.

Today we want to tell you about an amazing American program that is making great strides in addressing this issue: the Wholesome Wave. Maybe it is strange that the two of us, who live in Canada and New Zealand, are describing an American program to a probably-mostly-American readership! But just in case some of you do not yet know about it, you will probably find this as fascinating as we do.

Operated out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, Wholesome Wave is a nonprofit that was established in 2007 by chef Michel Nischan, a James Beard award-winning chef. What they have accomplished in less than 10 years is impressive.

The following is a summary of their work (much from their website):

They make it possible for people living in under-served communities to buy fresh, locally grown fruits and veggies.

Their efforts also help small farms and boost local economies

They have managed to spread their primary initiatives to > 26 states and Washington, DC.

They are in over 300 farmers markets across the country.

How do they do this? We will describe just two of their primary initiatives (Double Value Coupon Program and FVRx), but you may want to check their website to learn more:

The Double Value program encourages people to spend their federal nutrition benefits in farmers markets, where they get 2 dollars worth of fresh produce for every dollar they spend. On their website, Wholesome Wave reports that they are currently working in 21 states and DC, and in >350 farmers markets. This program is only about 6 years old, and surely will expand a great deal more in the future.

It was FVRx that we first heard about. It stands for Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, and is only about 4 years old. The stated goal of FVRx is to help overweight children gain access to healthy food choices. Physicians working with such children can write a prescription that can be redeemed for healthy fruits and veggies, equivalent to a dollar a day per person in the family. Only a dollar a day? Well, it might not sound like much, but it is likely more than is currently spent by some families on a per person basis. And it is likely that the use of these prescriptions will introduce the children to thinking about food choices in a healthier way, will train their taste buds to accept more varieties of produce, and will educate families to think about fresh produce more often.

Now let us tell you about the icing on the cake (made from zucchini, of course): All of their programs seem to be set up in a way that enables them to monitor and evaluate outcomes. For instance, the physicians who provide an FVRx also collect baseline information about height and weight, and work with the family and a nutritionist to set goals. Then, every month of the six-month program the family must return for a prescription renewal, at which time additional health outcome information is gathered and goals are revisited. In addition, the retailers who participate in the program by honouring the FV prescription actually track the Rx redemptions. Hence, the program is able to evaluate the ‘uptake’ by participants.

It seems to us that there is just one flaw in Wholesome Wave: the focus is limited to markers of physical health. So the two of us have some work cut out for ourselves, to try to influence Wholesome Wave to attend to mental health in some of their outcome measures.

In the meantime, we strongly encourage any Americans reading this blog to look into Wholesome Wave (wholesomewave.org) for your own neighborhoods. They seem to be looking for volunteers, donations (of course), and ideas.

First published in Mad In America

Bonnie Kaplan, PhD. Bonnie has published on the biological basis of mental health – in particular, the contribution of nutrition to brain development and function, micronutrient treatments for mental disorders, and the effect of intrauterine nutrition on brain development and maternal mental health.
Julia Rucklidge, PhD. Julia’s interest in nutrition and mental illness grew out of her own research showing poor outcomes for children with psychiatric illness despite conventional treatments. She has been investigating the role of micronutrients in mental illness.

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