Bad Medicine

Nature's Rx: Farmers Markets Cropping Up at Hospitals

healthy eating frequent snacking
(Image credit: Dreamstime)

Hospitals and health clinics have pharmacies for their patients, but why not add a place to pick up vegetables and fruits, too?

After years of treating their clientele for the ravages of poor nutrition — obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke — some doctors finally are catching on to the idea that prescribing carrots instead of pharmaceutical drugs might be a better option. It's preventive medicine 101.

The Harris County Hospital District serving Houston, Texas, and its surroundings is among just a handful of health organizations that have incorporated a full-fledged farmers market into its facilities. The reasons are many: Most of the patients coming to its clinics are poor; their neighborhoods are largely devoid of grocery stores selling healthy foods and instead are filled with fast-food outlets and small shops selling snacks; and many of those people with access to supermarkets either cannot afford fresh foods there or do not understand basic nutrition.

As a result, the poor and middle class living in these murky food swamps, where unhealthy food is cheaper and more plentiful than healthy food, suffer disproportionately from high rates of obesity and related diseases. A doctor's advice to "eat better" is essentially useless given these circumstances. [Diabetes & Obesity in America (Infographic)]

The Harris County Hospital District has partnered with a Houston-based nonprofit organization called Veggie Pals to offer fresh vegetables and fruits at a subsidized price, to compete with the cheaper food options in these patients' neighborhoods. The easy availability — it's just down the hallway from the doctor's office — is coupled with advice about the benefits of these foods and how to prepare them.

Since its start in November 2011, the program, called Healthy Harvest, has sold more than 5 tons of produce, according to Ann Smith Barnes, the medical director of the hospital system's Weight Management and Disease Prevention department. The program is offered at five facilities and is growing.

Kaiser Permanente, based in Oakland, Calif., is a hospital system that has pioneered workplace farmers markets, albeit originally for its workers and people in the community, not necessarily for its patients. Kaiser Permanente's program started more than a decade ago at its Oakland headquarters with just a simple, weekly market on its sidewalk featuring local farmers. The program was a hit and has since spread to dozens of its facilities around the country.

Elsewhere, nonprofits are working in poor communities to enable the use of food stamps at farmers markets, where typically only cash is accepted. Some programs try to sweeten the deal by doubling the face value of the food stamps so that shoppers can buy twice as much produce.

Truth be told, many vegetables aren't necessarily more expensive than fast food. A one-pound bag of carrots costs only about 60 cents; peeled, these carrots can be a healthy, sweet snack for pennies a day. And now at a health clinic near you, you just might hear a doctor say, "Take two carrots and call me in the morning."

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.