Childhood obesity in the United States costs $14.1 billion annually in direct health expenses like prescription drugs and visits to doctors and emergency rooms, according to a recent article on the economics of childhood obesity published in the journal Health Affairs. Treating obesity-related illness in adults costs an estimated $147 billion annually, the article said.
Although the vegetable prescription pilot project is small, its supporters see it as a model for encouraging obese children and their families to increase the volume and variety of fresh produce they eat.
“Can we help people in low-income areas, who shop in the center of supermarkets for low-cost empty-calorie food, to shop at farmers’ markets by making fruit and vegetables more affordable?” said Gus Schumacher, the chairman of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group in Bridgeport, Conn., that supports family farmers and community access to locally grown produce.
If the pilot project is successful, Mr. Schumacher said, “farmers’ markets would become like a fruit and vegetable pharmacy for at-risk families.”
The pilot project plans to enroll up to 50 families of four at three health centers in Massachusetts that already have specialized children’s programs called healthy weight clinics.
A foundation called CAVU, for Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited, sponsors the clinics that are administering the veggie project. The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and Wholesome Wave each contributed $10,000 in seed money. (Another arm of the program, at several health centers in Maine, is giving fresh produce vouchers to pregnant mothers.) The program is to run until the end of the farmers’ market season in late fall.
One month after Leslie-Ann Ogiste, a certified nursing assistant in Boston, and her 9-year-old son, Makael Constance, received their first vegetable prescription vouchers at the Codman Center, they have lost a combined four pounds, she said. A staff member at the center told Ms. Ogiste about a farmers’ market that is five minutes from her apartment, she said.
“It worked wonders,” said Ms. Ogiste, who bought and prepared eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, summer squash, corn, bok choy, parsley, carrots and red onions. “Just the variety, it did help.”