A new prescription: Eat your veggies

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 12, 2014 - 9:32 AM

Battling obesity in kids, HealthPartners tests prescriptions for produce.


In this file photo, two boys eat watermelon during a summer camp for overweight children.

One of Minnesota’s largest health care providers is going to a new extreme in its struggle to combat the epidemic of childhood obesity.

It’s started writing prescriptions for vegetables.

For now, it’s just a pilot project at HealthPartners clinics in Hugo and White Bear Lake. But if the experiment succeeds, the Bloomington-based health organization could expand the project across the Twin Cities to address the high — and rising — rate of childhood obesity. Nearly a quarter of the state’s ninth-graders are overweight or obese, according to last year’s Minnesota Student Survey — a trend mirrored in skyrocketing youth obesity rates nationwide.

“What we’re doing hasn’t been working,” said Dr. Thomas Kottke, HealthPartners’ medical director for population health. “Obesity in kids has taken off in the last 20-25 years. And so we need to do something differently.”

Emily Miller was a skeptic. The Forest Lake mom tried cutting junk food and putting out healthier snacks with the only results being whining children and rotting fruit.

But after her 12- and 10-year-old daughters got their veggie prescriptions at checkups earlier this year, they demanded to go straight to the grocery store.

“I didn’t realize how much it would spark an interest in my girls,” Miller said.

Participating doctors issue the prescriptions to children ages 5 to 12 who could use healthier diets and encourage them to make their own choices and try something new; area supermarkets accept the prescriptions and track the varieties of produce purchased. The prescriptions are actually just vouchers funded by HealthPartners, rather than formal scripts billed to health insurance companies. But the idea is to make them look official so they send the message to children that good eating is good health care.

While braced for critics, who might object to “medicalizing” diet and using health care dollars for family food budgets, health system officials think it’s a sound investment.

“It could save us a huge amount of money down the road in our cholesterol-lowering drugs, in our heart-saving procedures,” assuming that healthy children grow into healthy adults, said Dr. Elsa Keeler, a pediatrician at the White Bear Lake clinic.

And those costs can be staggering. A study late last month estimated that an obese child will incur $19,000 in additional lifetime medical costs, given the elevated risks for diabetes and heart disease as adults.

“Obesity ... affects our communities. It’s raising our health care costs,” said Dr. Ed Ehlinger, Minnesota’s state health commissioner. “I think physicians should be very concerned about it.”

Fruit pizza

Miller’s daughters differ in their eating habits, though both craved treats like Nutty Bars and gummy snacks as much as the next kid.

Her oldest girl, Alena, is picky. She tolerates apples, though, so she used her prescription to buy multiple varieties and took a chance on spinach. Now the family uses her favorite apples in applesauce and to make a substitute for cooking oil. She even liked the spinach and soon progressed to zucchini in salads and bread.

“If I had even said that before,” Miller said, “it was like, ‘Ewwww, egh!’ ”

Her younger daughter, Amelia, is more adventurous. She used her prescription on tropical fruits such as kiwi and papaya for a yogurt-based fruit “pizza.’’

“I think it was [successful] because it was their thing,” Miller said. “It wasn’t me encouraging them to do it. It was their choice.”

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  • How it works: Participating doctors issue the ‘‘prescriptions’’ to kids ages 5 to 12 who could use healthier diets. Area markets accept the prescriptions and track purchases.

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