Let’s say you have just spent the last of your month’s budget on rent and are unsure how you will feed your children. While visiting the clinic, you share this concern and your doctor writes you a “Veggie Prescription.” They tell you that you and your family deserve fresh food, and that it is a cornerstone of your health. You are able to purchase whole fruits and vegetables for the first time in ages and something shifts for you and your healthcare provider.

Gorge Grown Food Network and partners launched a Veggie Prescription (Veggie Rx) pilot program in August 2015. The primary goal was to provide more access to fresh produce for the one in three Gorge residents who suffer from hunger. This initiative is one of several programs to advance Gorge Grown’s mission to create a resilient and inclusive food system that improves the health and well-being of our community.

Here’s how it works:

First, healthcare and social service providers screen patients for hunger using Oregon Food Bank’s “screen and intervene” questions:

• In the last 12 months, did you and the people you live with worry that you would run out of food before you were able to get more?

• In the last 12 months, did you and the people you live with run out of food before you were able to get more?

Providers then write a $20 “prescription” for those in need. Patients or clients “fill” the prescription at farmers’ markets in the summer months and grocery stores during the remainder of the year for fresh, whole fruits or vegetables.

In just four months, the program grew to include over 35 distribution partners and 19 grocery stores/farm stands and all 10 regional farmers markets. Distribution was widespread throughout the Gorge in both Oregon and Washington, making this the most robust independent program of its kind in the country. Over 1,000 people enrolled. Healthcare providers reported that “Veggie Rx participants experienced an improvement in diet, nutrition, physical health, mental health, and financial health.”

Participants in the focus groups shared that family members of all ages were consuming more fruits and vegetables. They said they were losing weight, felt better, and were experiencing less stress and anxiety. Their children were now comfortable inviting friends over, knowing they had fresh fruit to share.

Hunger is complex, and we know that ultimately it is rooted in poverty. The deeper question we’ve been grappling with is, why is there such economic disparity here?

Hood River was deemed the 22nd richest small town in America in the Bloomberg Index. Yet Hood River Valley Schools indicate some of the highest rates of poverty in the state: over 83 percent of the children at Mid Valley Elementary are eligible for free/reduced price lunch. We can assume those children’s families are living below the poverty line, and that school lunches may be where those children get most of their calories.

In 2014, 40 organizations worked to identify top health needs in the region through a Community Health Needs Assessment. Information was gathered from more than 1,100 community members in English and Spanish. The top two needs identified by community members in the Social Determinants of Health category were food insecurity and affordable housing. Income for those living in poverty goes to rent and utilities first, so the lack of affordable housing and hunger are linked.

Sarah Sullivan is executive director of Gorge Grown Food Network. Donate or read more at www.gorgegrown.com.

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