Is a Food Prescription Program on the Horizon in Whatcom County?

There is a long line stretched out the door and around the corner. Some people standing by themselves, others with another family member, all there for the same reason. The staff and volunteers are busily taking inventory, refilling bins or assisting with quantity allotments all with a friendly demeanor and smile.

I’m standing in the middle of a large room that looks like a grocery store except with less dry goods and advertised product placement screaming for attention. There is a refrigerator with milk and eggs along the wall, on the outside of the refrigerator door is a sign with no words but color coded numbers. Along the perimeter of the room are proteins and dry goods each with the same color coded numbers. In the center, much like a grocery store, are bins with fresh produce.

The Bellingham Food Bank (BFB) serves 3,100 people from Bellingham every single week and the need to provide food for the hungry does not seem to be diminishing. Providing nutritious and healthy food is a priority for the Food Bank, they stand firm in the knowledge that healthy food equals a healthy community. “We address the inequality of food access, we believe hunger is unacceptable and therefore fill the gap where the availability falls short” said Mike Cohen, Executive Director of the BFB.

At Chuckanut Health Foundation (CHF) we are strong supporters of the work that Mike and the rest of the BFB staff and volunteers provide for our community. In 2013, CHF awarded $50,000 to the BFB for a capital project to expand its building to accommodate growing demand for services. Last year, CHF awarded $10,000 towards the purchase of an emergency generator – a requirement in times of natural disaster or power outages.

“We are in the process of developing a vegetable prescription program and are hopeful to begin a yearlong pilot program. Before we begin the pilot program, we are collaborating with UnityCareNW and Sea Mar Community Health Centers to incorporate additional support from health care and insurance companies to commit to participating in the program as well. For example, a doctor would be able to prescribe an individual a $30 voucher to be used at any grocery store to purchase fresh produce. Our aspiration is that such a program would be available to anyone who is food insecure.” Mike explains when asked what new programs are developing at the BFB.

Other states and cities have launched similar prescription programs. Seattle launched a Fresh Bucks RX program in July 2016 for low-income patients with diet related disease. On May 8th, National Public Radio aired a story about Fresh Food Pharmacy in Pennsylvania on its Morning Edition program. The Food Bank of Delaware launched its Produce Prescription Program in June 2016 and is currently expanding to a Pediatric clinic. (Additional resources here and here)

“The idea of a food prescription program is not new, what makes it a lasting program is the buy in and commitment from the health care and insurance companies, that is our next step” explains Mike. “We want to follow the lead of other places that have incorporated the program into their current systems and we want to see it succeed for longer than a year.”

With the support of the local health care facilities and insurance companies, the return on investment will have a great impact, not only on the health of the individuals who would benefit from accessible healthy food options but also the overall understanding of healthy food and how it relates to overall health.

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