Rx for Fruits and Veggies

PUBLISHED AUG 2, 2019 AT 2:58 PM (UPDATED AUG 2, 2019)

NYC pharmacies fill “prescriptions” for greenmarket produce for low-income residents with high blood pressure

NYC Health Department Flyer

“Pharmacists, we found, were really excited to talk, not just about medication, but also about changes that people can make in their life for their health.”

Jeni Clapp, director of nutrition policy and programs, NYC Department of Health

Your next drugstore refill could include a “prescription” for free fruit and vegetables. The New York City Health Department is expanding its “Pharmacy to Farm Prescriptions” program, to increase access to fresh produce for low-income New Yorkers with high blood pressure.

One in four New York City adults have high blood pressure, a leading cause of death, says the Health Department. Eating fruit and vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease.

Now 16 independent pharmacies in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens will provide customers with monthly “farm prescriptions,” that are good for $30 worth of produce at designated, local farmers markets. Enrollment is open to adults who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and take blood pressure medication. Customers must sign up, and fill their prescriptions, at a participating drugstore. The pilot started in 2017 with three pharmacies, and grew to 10 last year.

In a survey of current enrollees, 61 percent said they worried about hunger after their monthly benefits ran out, and 80 percent said fruits and vegetables cost too much.

 “We wanted to find a way to extend people’s food budgets, particularly for people who are at risk for diet-related chronic disease. So we looked for people who were on blood pressure medication,” said Jeni Clapp, the Health Department’s Director of Nutrition Policy and Programs.  

The pilot targeted independent pharmacies, because most of them are located in low-income neighborhoods and serve people of color, Clapp said.

 “They are available long hours, people can go to them without appointments. Many people have seen the same pharmacist for years, and pharmacists, we found, were really excited to talk, not just about medication, but also about changes that people can make in their life for their health,” she said.

“We’ve noticed a lot of people, getting the $30 for their fruits and vegetables, actually coming back to the pharmacy, and we’ve noticed that it’s changed their diet a lot,” says Victor Domenech, pharmacy technician at QuickRx UWS on Columbus Avenue at 104th Street, which joined the pilot last year.

The “farm prescriptions” give customers an incentive to stay on their medications, eat less salt and fried and focus on their health, says Domenench.  He has convinced some to walk to the West 97 Street Greenmarket.

 “The main reason for this program is for us to review the patients’ way of living while they are on blood pressure medications,” said Zami Yasin at his family-owned New York City Pharmacy, on First Avenue in the East Village.  Returning participants also get an “award” of healthier food that’s always within their budgets, he said.  

 “It’s been astounding and really exciting to be able to introduce people to the market, show them what’s in season, show them how to prepare it healthfully — we always have gobs of free recipes. And  then, they have $30 they can spend on fruits and vegetables that are offered,” said Cheryl Huber, Greenmarket Assistant Director at GrowNYC.

“The whole thing has really been a positive experience for the Pharmacy to Farm participants, our staff, and the farmers, who see a nice boost in income from this program,” Huber said.

So far, $80,000 in Pharmacy to Farm prescriptions have been issued to 850 participants. Nearly 90 percent get redeemed. 

The Health Department is compiling data on the health effects of the pilot program, based in part on monthly questionnaires that pharmacy clients fill out when they get medications refilled. The Health Department hopes to release its findings next year. 

Published in print and online at The Spirit, Chelsea News, and Our Town

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