For most folks, getting a prescription filled usually means a trip to the local pharmacy. But that’s not the case for the 400-plus people enrolled in Washtenaw County’s Prescription for Health program.
They head to their local farmers markets, seeking better health in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Founded in 2008, the Prescription for Health program is funded by Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. It’s designed to help people who are both food-insecure and at risk for chronic disease improve their wellbeing.
The process is fairly simple. Clients are referred by a clinician who gives them a written prescription worth $100 that they can take to a farmers market and use over 10 visits. Waiting for them at a booth are friendly community health workers who give them nutritional information, individual support, and the tokens they need to purchase fresh produce. Clients get 10 tokens per visit and each token is valued at $1.
Putting those wooden tokens in participants’ hands is tantamount to handing them the power to make life-changing – and potentially life-saving – choices. And the benefits extend beyond the actual program members.
"People are able to take control of their health in a different way," says Ariane Reister, the program’s coordinator and a health educator with the Washtenaw County Health Department. "And they share both the food and their new habits with their kids and families. The local food economy and farmers are benefiting, too."
Reister is often emotionally affected by another key benefit of the program.
"People are socializing and building wonderful relationships with community (health) workers, the farmers, and other program participants. They’re getting a lot of support and positivity that they wouldn’t otherwise receive. It’s beautiful to see," she says.
For Sheri Montoye, executive director of Faith in Action Chelsea/Dexter, it’s fitting for her organization – the largest food distribution organization in western Washtenaw County – to serve as a Prescription for Health referral site. Faith in Action has already guided 42 people to this year’s program so far.
"It makes sense to offer this program to families we serve so they can receive the freshest local food during the summer months. They’re able to shop directly from the farmers, choosing items they like, and which their families will eat," she says. "It adds value to our service site and helps our most vulnerable individuals and families begin to move beyond daily survival mode as they use the program to set health goals."
The improvements in participants’ health have been documented most recently in Prescription for Health’s 2018 Outcome Report. It found that participants had increased their fruit and vegetable intake by nearly one cup per day and started eating less unhealthy foods such as chips, soda, and fast food. 86% of clients said the program helped them manage a health condition.
The report also states that there was an increase in self-reported health improvements.
"We hear fantastic stories from people about their health improving," Reister says. "We’ve heard about weight loss, people who are pre-diabetic making a turnaround, and people being able to get off of medications."
Sixty-year-old Grass Lake resident Anita Stewart is someone who has told such stories and who now hears them herself.
In 2012, she suffered a series of strokes that suddenly left her unable to work and in need of both emotional and financial support. She found help at Faith in Action and became a Prescription for Health client. The organization eventually also assisted her in getting a job – as a Prescription for Health community health worker.
Stewart checks in with participants when they arrive at the farmers market, reviews their health goals, and make suggestions for how to stay on track.
"I give them reference materials, recipes, and support. I make sure that they write down what we discuss for themselves so they really get it," she says.
Stewart says she's learned a lot from her experience with Prescription for Health.
"I was never taught about the health benefits of certain foods, and I wasn’t aware of how foods can affect your body," she says. "My own journey lets me relate and talk to people with a good understanding of all that they’re going through."
Stewart loves to sit back and witness Prescription for Health’s transformative effects. She recalls one woman who first came to her so overweight that she had to use a walker.
"She lost hundreds of pounds and it changed how she looked and how she dressed and the confidence she had in talking to people," Stewart says. "Now she doesn’t have to use a walker anymore and she still comes by to shop. She brings her kids with her, so it’s a chain reaction that keeps on going in families and in the community. I’m proud to be involved."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.