A new program in Flint, Michigan, allows pediatricians to write prescriptions for discounted produce. Could it be a solution for the entire nation?

Following research and a new study that suggests prescribing fresh fruit and veggies could help children living in poverty eat healthier, a program has doubled its efforts in Flint, Michigan, allowing pediatricians to grant their patients access to discounted fresh produce at a nearby farmers market.

Back in 2015, a pediatric clinic associated with the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine relocated its offices to the second floor of a building that houses the downtown Flint Farmers' Market. It began testing a limited program where certain patients were given $15 prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables that could be redeemed downstairs at the market.

Through interviews, researchers learned that parents, families, and caregivers of the children receiving these prescriptions were more likely to shop at the farmers' market—and to buy and cook healthier food.

"Some talked about how they enjoy visiting the farmers' market with their kids and guiding the children to use the prescriptions for their favorite fruits and vegetables," said lead researcher Amy Saxe-Custack, an assistant professor at Michigan State University and nutrition director of the program, in a press release. "Others described how they hold on to the prescriptions until they reach $30 to $40 and redeem them at the market when food dollars are limited."

Credit: Photo courtesy of Nancy D. Lamontagne.

More than 60 percent of the children living in Flint are in poverty, and there's a tendency for these children to have greater access to unhealthy, high-calorie foods versus the healthy, nutrient-dense staples found at places such as a farmer's market. Flint, which has long been plagued by health issues, is considered a food desert due to the limited amount of full-service grocery stores located within city limits.

Saxe-Custack presented her findings at the annual American Society for Nutrition conference held this week in Boston, Massachusetts.  And the program is expanding. New funding through the Michigan Health Endowment Fund will expand the program, including new ways of redeeming prescriptions online and via telephone so that patients can have fresh produce delivered right to their door.

Saxe-Custack hopes that this expansion can teach her team of researchers more about how fresh produce can influence nutrition within a food desert—and if this program is ready to be rolled out elsewhere in communities across the nation.