Fresh Rx program helps more people get access to nutrition education and fresh produce
If “food is medicine,” as Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Family Nutrition Program Assistant Nakesha Moore says, then it certainly makes sense that food could be prescribed as such. Thanks to a blossoming program spearheaded by nonprofit Lynchburg Grows, qualifying Hill City residents are able to receive just that.
Now in its second year, Fresh Rx, inspired by similar programs nationwide, was started by Lynchburg Grows to help people struggling with diet-related illnesses. Doctors prescribe the program, which is free (the program is funded by the Centra Foundation), and participants are then invited to a seven-week class series held at the Miller Center, taught by nutrition experts. At the end of each class (there are two opportunities per week to attend a class), participants are given a box of produce to take home.
“The goal is to give people the knowledge they need to feel empowered to make healthy decisions, for themselves and their families,” explained Shelley Blades, Lynchburg Grows Executive Director and Farm Manager. “We are just giving people what they need to make healthier decisions if they choose to—we are not here to tell them what they are doing is wrong.”
Blades said patients from low-income families, typically under or uninsured, who could benefit from a diet change are prescribed Fresh Rx by their doctors. “The doctors do write an actual prescription and to fill it they come to us,” she said. About 10-15 people go through the program in each of its three cycles per year.
At the Miller Center, Moore and Jeanell Smith—Lynchburg’s VCE Senior Family Nutrition Program Assistant, Adult SNAP-Ed—teach nutrition curriculum and offer cooking demonstrations showing participants tasty ways to utilize what they are taking home.
“This particular program is exciting because we are introducing different vegetables that people don’t normally buy,” Smith said, noting she herself gained an appreciation for Hakurei turnips through teaching the class. “We cover topics varying from how to make a menu and a grocery list, to how to read food labels or how to incorporate more activity—the expectation isn’t that everyone run a marathon but that they are a little more active than they were last week and then build on that.
“The thing that we emphasize in our classes is small, gradual changes,” Smith continued. “Making these small, incremental changes to your lives instead of thinking of this as a diet—that screams temporary. Make these small changes and they become habits and then it just becomes how you live your life.”
Physicians, often ones who have patients in the class, also show up to give presentations, which Blades said means a lot to the participants.
Joyce Booker was prescribed the program last year while on a quest to lose weight in order to have a knee replacement.
“It was great,” Booker said of Fresh Rx. “I had a wonderful doctor that helped counsel me on my weight loss. [Then, the program] opened me up to a lot of different things: of preparing food and cooking things and sharing with the other people in the class. It gave you a different perspective.”
Booker had a successful surgery in January. “I lost the weight that I needed to lose. I’m cooking right and exercising.”
Fixing fresh vegetables became easy for her through Fresh Rx.
“The way Jeanell took them and cut them up and fixed them, it gave me a different perspective on how they taste,” Booker said. “She also gave us a lot of recipes which really helped make the program work for me.”
Before Moore was teaching nutrition classes, she was in one of them (through a different program, not Fresh Rx).
“Everything that I learned in class I was excited to come home and share with my children,” Moore said. “It was not only my health habits that changed—I was also directly impacting the lives of my children through their nutrition. The improvements went way beyond nutrition—and that meant added family time … together and eating, talking about our day, away from the television.”
Blades said that this aspect of “creating community,” starting in the classes, can bring more “voices for healthy food” in area neighborhoods.
The program serves a vital role in Lynchburg’s community, both in terms of education and access. The education is important because people need to know how significantly what they eat matters.
“There is sufficient data now to show that the biggest part of our health is nutrition, what we eat,” Moore said.
A big part of your diet, she says, should come in the form of fruits and vegetables.
“You always want your plate to be colorful,” Smith said. “Fruits and vegetables bring tons of fiber to your diet, lots of antioxidants, which help prevent chronic illness, and certainly lots of vitamins.”
If fresh produce is not feasible, frozen is a suitable alternative, she added.
People with certain conditions or illnesses, like the ones prescribed into the program, can drastically improve their lives by eating properly.
“Improving your health can be directly correlated to the amount of fruits and vegetables that you eat,” Smith said. “A high fiber diet is a natural way to decrease your cholesterol. … When you think about diabetes or think about any heart condition or someone who has any kind of inflammatory issue or condition, decreasing processed sugar, which can cause inflammation, you are going to see a reduction if you can cut it out.”
These diet changes can lead to life-changing success stories, just like Booker’s. Smith and Moore have seen a number of transformations.
“I have had clients who have had their medication lowered or have been taken off of it because their diet is better,” Moore said.
Free is the key with Fresh Rx, because it allows lower income individuals to not only get the nutrition education they need, it also provides them with free produce, as well as cutting boards, veggie scrubbers, measuring cups and spoons, food thermometers and, when they graduate, a cookbook of simple, affordable recipes. The take-home box features a diverse range of vegetables, harvested at Lynchburg Grows, which varies by season but could include lettuce, beets, cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes and more.
“Food in general is a basic human need—it shouldn’t be based off of your socioeconomic status,” Blades said. “Hopefully that confidence of knowing what to do, of being in control of this [health]aspect of their lives, can trickle into other aspects of their lives.”
Grow it Yourself
Starting a home garden is a great way to have easy access to affordable, fresh vegetables.
Blades recommends starting small: “Experiment and have fun.”
Start with tomatoes in a bucket and expand to herbs and lettuce. “You can grow a whole salad all on the back porch.” Radishes grow quickly and Blades said watching them progress can be encouraging for novice gardeners.
It’s a process of trial and error; don’t get discouraged and don’t expect to cultivate a massive, flourishing garden overnight.