Doctors writing fruit and vegetable prescriptions to battle hunger

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When a doctor handed Christina Olszyk a prescription for fruits and vegetables Wednesday, it clearly lacked the power to reverse her recent misfortunes.

But it didn’t hurt.

“It’s been one bad thing after another,” said Olszyk, 31, a medical-records worker who lives with her unemployed husband in a small Phoenixville mobile home. She clutched the script that proclaims her eligible for $14 of produce as she stood outside The Clinic, a free medical facility for the uninsured and impoverished. 

She has endured her husband’s mental illness, as well as a concussion after being attacked during a robbery at the pharmacy where she worked last year. And, for too long, she’s dealt with the desperation of finding and keeping a decent-paying job to deflect hunger.

“It’s nice,” she said, “to hold on to something that can help.”

The prescriptions, redeemable at a mobile food market that will be traveling to eight Chester County towns from mid-June through mid-November,  are an idea shepherded by Ana Negrón, a clinic volunteer and family practice doctor. Nationally, the first such programs – known as Fruit & Veggie Rx — were piloted in 2011 by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit with offices in Connecticut, California, and elsewhere.

Negrón, 69, was the logical person to treat fresh food as medicine for her impoverished patients susceptible to diabetes and heart disease. She’s been doing it for years.

“Diseases melt away when people are eating right with a plant-based diet,” said Negrón, the author of the book Nourishing the Body and Recovering Health: The Positive Science of Food (Sunstone Press, 2015). She runs a nutrition practice in Haverford and Paoli called Practice Wellness Beyond A Wish.

Once a week, Negrón cooks healthy foods – such as grains, beans and green vegetables – with her patients at a nearby church.

Nationally, fresh produce is becoming part of the larder offered to people without enough to eat. Traditionally, advocates have battled hunger by any means necessary – even if that meant supplying foods that aren’t the healthiest choices. But, Negrón said, health problems from such offerings can add up.

“All the food pantries and free food places are loaded with fat and sugar and processed meats,” Negrón said.

Beyond that, distributing canned foods is an example of how people who do good may not do it well, according Anita Guzman, executive director of Alianzas de Phoenixville, which addresses the needs of Latinos.

“Some food pantries are not understanding the nuances of our community,” said Guzman. Local Latinos, who come from Brazil, Guatemala, Mexico, and numerous other countries, “are from agricultural communities unaccustomed to cans,” she said.

With luck, some of those misunderstandings will be addressed by the prescription program when the mobile market gets rolling.

Called Fresh2you, the market will be traveling to places without easy access to fresh produce. Customers don’t need prescriptions to get food; anyone can purchase it, including those with food stamps.

Chester County is one of America’s richest, with a relatively low poverty rate of 5.7 percent, according to U.S. Census figures from 2015, the latest available. It’s dwarfed by Philadelphia’s 26 percent poverty rate. And no suburban county on either side of the Delaware River has a lower percentage.

Still, the county has long wrestled with what poverty it has, marshaling a collective will to try to improve the condition that hinders 29,000 of its residents.

“The county uses its farms and wealth to create partnerships to help,” said Phoebe Kitson-Davis, a Chester Food Bank director.

The Food Bank supplies much of the food loaded onto the Fresh2you van, which is run by manager Roberta Cosentino.

Educated as a rural sociologist, Cosentino said she has a love of small-scale farming and those who grow for the food bank. “They have a developed sense of community,” she said.

The other day, she gave tours of the van, gleaming silver and currently empty inside, awaiting June’s produce. Summer is considered the hungriest time of year, since schools that normally serve breakfast and lunch will be closed, and impoverished parents unused to supplying those meals are further strained.

Her visits to Chester County towns will be vital, Cosentino believes, since one of the biggest problems of rural poverty is lack of cars and gas money.

“We’re working hard to offer a viable way for people here to afford food,” Cosentino said. “And access is a big issue.”

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