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Whether a one-time opportunity to test new fruits or vegetables will be equally transformative for other families is unclear. HealthPartners will study that question after the two clinics use up their 100 trial prescriptions.
Research on the issue has been inconclusive. Last month, a British study of fruit and vegetable prescriptions for 1,184 people in a low-income neighborhood found that most were used, but that they didn’t change long-term habits because people still considered fresh produce too expensive.
Ehlinger said such strategies will work only in conjunction with broader efforts to make healthier choices easier. Some lower-income parents, for example, find it hard to choose fresh produce when it is more expensive than high-calorie packaged foods that fill their families up for less money.
Junk food marketing and fast-food availability — compared to the scarcity of produce markets in some communities — also present challenges, he said. “We have to change the policies and systems in an environment, in a community, if we are going to get people to move and eat properly. It’s not just about an individual choice.”
The prescription trial is part of Bear Power, a collaboration of HealthPartners, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, and schools and civic groups in White Bear Lake to improve community health.
School “move-a-thons” and Bear Power bracelets are among the tools to spread awareness. Local grocers have already been participating in a variety of ways, such as putting healthy options in the “impulse buy” shelves next to the registers.
This “is about being proactive about health,” said Tom Clasen, a vice president for Knowlan’s Supermarkets, which has three Festival Foods stores that accept the prescriptions. “Our medical system is so built around a reactive stance to problems.”
Clasen said children have used prescriptions to buy everything from cilantro to mangoes to jicama.
While cost is a barrier to healthier eating, Kottke said there are other barriers that the prescription program might address. Even doctors tiptoe around subjects such as personal diet and weight with patients, so the prescriptions give them an excuse to be more direct. The prescriptions also appeal to the American desire to sample foods first, and to children’s love of gifts and opportunities to pick things out for themselves “without having to put 10 bucks at risk,” Kottke said.
“One $10 coupon every year or two isn’t going to change things,” he added. “That ... is trivial to the annual grocery bill. So this is about sampling and it’s about signaling the parents that we are serious about this.”
Miller is left with a chicken-and-egg question: Did she spur her children’s junk food cravings with her own purchases, or did their cravings push her to buy foods she never really wanted?
Snack times and dinners at the Miller home still aren’t perfect, but they have improved.
Miller’s 13-year-old son grumbled about the changes — he had no say because he didn’t receive a prescription — and loathed the lack of pop in the fridge. But he was OK with the new foods on his plate.
“He eats whatever is put in front of him,” Miller said. “He’s kind of a human garbage disposal.”
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744