Penn State ProduceRx: an interdisciplinary team approach to positively influencing patient nutrition

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This August, providers within the Penn State Health System in Central Pennsylvania will be able to “prescribe” a weekly box of fresh, locally grown produce to patients through a new innovative program called ProduceRx. This program is one of the first of its kind in the nation to involve all members of the interdisciplinary healthcare team in impacting health outcomes of the patient. As research has shown that simply increasing access to fruits and vegetables is not enough to change eating habits, ProduceRx will also consist of a nutritional education component in collaboration with registered dietitians, dietetic interns, and medical students from the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Participating patients will receive nutritional education through printed newsletters and YouTube cooking videos. Additionally, YouTube videos may feature guest physicians, community members, health administrators, and other healthcare workers to increase community-connectedness with the project. Local farmers will also be included and encouraged as the initial source of the quality nutrition that is contributing to their community health with this project, and supporting them strengthens the local tax base. This holistic community-centered approach will facilitate connectedness and solidarity between the healthcare system and those it serves, and has the potential to set a precedent for other health systems across the country to follow.

The program was created by a first-year medical student who grew up in the local area and experienced weight problems throughout childhood, including weight-related health issues. Her goal in creating the program was to target adolescent patients such as herself and her family members, who worked full-time and had little nutritional education and ideas for utilizing fresh vegetables and fruits in family meals. After enlisting in the Air Force and traveling to the famous “blue zone” of Okinawa, she became keenly aware of the value of fresh produce in the diet and its impact on overall health and longevity.

The program follows a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture structure, in which local farms offer a certain number of “shares” to the public. The initial partnering farm, Strites Orchard, will open up their pre-existing CSA delivery points (15+) across Central PA to ProduceRx participants in order to increase accessibility of the program to patients who do not live within the immediate area of the medical center. In addition to Strites offering a slight discount on their CSA boxes for the program, grant funding will be used to discount the boxes down to a more affordable weekly $10 “copay” for patients. EBT/SNAP benefits may be used to pay this “copay”. The program will not be contractual. Instead, initial registration will allow the patient to return by the end of each week to order a box for the subsequent week, if so desired. Weekly boxes will consist of 6-8 items of fruits and vegetables grown locally and harvested just prior to packaging. As an added bonus, participating patients will be able to visit Strites’ farm on open “Upick” days and pick additional fruit and vegetables at no cost while visualizing the growing process and seeing where their produce is coming from.

ProduceRx aims to support patient health and improve patient outcomes, make quality produce more accessible and affordable to patients, and engender differences in longitudinal eating behaviors in ways consistent with the hospital’s wellness initiative. ProduceRx will also consist of a research component to examine the program’s impact and influence on patients’ lives and eating habits and attempt to show the benefit of implementing a program such as this at similar healthcare institutions.

This program has been designed with both patients and prescribers in mind. As so many clinic visits and comorbidities are associated with underlying weight and nutrition issues, it is essential that healthcare workers have time to adequately address these acute issues and be able to provide a means to address the pertinent underlying chronic issues of malnutrition and obesity.

As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

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Ethan Litman

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