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Food 'farmacy' help low-income patients eat fresh produce, improve health

OAKLAND, Calif. – We all know the saying, "an apple a day keeps the doctor away." 

But what if you can't afford the apple or any other vegetable? 

Monika Russi is always on the prowl for ways to keep her son healthy, especially after he was diagnosed with autism last year. 

Russi was surprised when doctors pulled out their prescription pads and ordered food instead of pharmaceuticals. 

"Being a single mom with two kids and trying to eat healthy is a challenge most of the time," Russi said.

To help people like Russi, a San Francisco hospital developed an innovative program, where low-income patients can pick up fresh produce, lean protein and whole grains free of charge twice a month. 

The food "farmacy" program was created after a four-month hospital study involving patients who were prescribed food as their "medicine."

"And what we ended up finding was that it improved not only the health of the household, but we also saw changes in the children," said Larissa Estes, of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.

"I'm a medical doctor and I prescribe medicine, but I always like to take the natural approach whenever possible and food is medicine," said Dr. Gena Lewis, of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland. 

The study also revealed healthy eating not only alleviates symptoms among children, it can reduce the impact of chronic diseases among their parents. 

Russi said the difference in her son since starting the program is remarkable. 

"It does alleviate a lot of the symptoms associated with some of his medical challenges," she said.

"If we don't deal with, and know about, and help families with the basics of their life, then we can't get to the important medical issues at hand," Lewis said.  

Doctors also report once children are introduced to more fruits and vegetables, they get more interested in trying new fresh foods. 

Other programs similar to the food farmacy have sprouted up in Pennsylvania and Boston.