A Prescription for Zucchini?

By Angela Hatton Mullins

Sometimes an idea is so good and so simple, you wonder why we didn’t think of it a long time ago.

The FARMACY program in Letcher County is one of those ideas.

Through this joint initiative of Community Farm Alliance, University of Kentucky, Appal-TREE Project and Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation (MCHC) in Whitesburg, doctors can now write prescriptions for vegetables to their clients with diet-related health conditions.

For example, if a patient suffers from diabetes or high blood pressure and obesity, her doctor can literally prescribe zucchini. The doctor would write out a prescription that can be filled at the Whitesburg Farmers’ Market.

The patient, who must also meet certain income guidelines in order to be eligible, then takes the prescription to the farmers market and trades it in for fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruit, free of charge to the patient.

Millette McCray of Whitesburg said she had heard about the program and asked her doctor if she might qualify. As a type 2 diabetic with high blood pressure, she was an ideal participant.

Her doctor prescribed her $21 per week in vouchers, which she trades in for wooden Farmers Market Dollar coins and then spends them at the market. She has two adult sons with health issues as well. They benefit from the program when she cooks healthy meals for them. Her son enjoys coming to the market to help pick out the produce, which also gets him involved in making healthier food choices.

Of course, free food is great, but McCray also likes it that she knows some of the farmers. She prefers buying local when she can.

“It’s not canned food, which already has salt and everything in it,” McCray said. “I like that. Plus you’re helping your friends.”

MCHC will now be monitoring her and the other participants’ blood pressure, weight, and other health markers to see what impact the program might have.

Michael Caudill, Chief Executive Officer of MCHC, said this is his company’s second year co-sponsoring the Summer Feeding Program for kids at the Whitesburg Farmer’s Market. When they were offered the opportunity to do FARMACY, he was interested in sponsoring the program for several reasons.

“The healthcare industry is very well aware that Kentucky leads the nation in bad health and that Eastern Kentucky leads Kentucky in worse health,” Caudill said. “It’s a really good program that can make a difference in life and quality of life FM-dollarshere.”

Caudill said he’s pleased that the program also allows his company to help the local economy by supporting local farmers through increased use of agriculture and helping his patients afford healthy food.

“It’s a win-win-win situation”, he said. “It helps our people stretch a dollar at a time when they really need it. It helps them get nutritional food that will help their health, helps local farmers, and helps us meet our health measures that are becoming part of the new trend for ‘fee for performance’ rather than a straight-up fee program.”

Caudill said there has been an overwhelming interest in the FARMACY program from many different fronts.

“People are asking for it. We have well over 100 signed up,” he said. “Our funds are limited since this is 100% from our own funds, not grants. There is more need and more interest than what we can afford, but we hope to have some help. We have had other people express interest like some managed care organizations and some financial companies.” Additional funding was contributed by Passport Health Plan, WellCare, Delta Dental, and BB&T.

Valerie Horn, Director of the Appal-TREE Project which is jointly administered by the Community Farm Alliance and the University of Kentucky, echoed Caudill’s opinions.

“Thanks to MCHC for recognizing the value in this program. In Eastern Kentucky we would like to see more support come this way.  The problems are here, but most likely so are the solutions,” Horn said. “The success of FARMACY is an example of what can happen when everyone works together for the good of the community. We’re so grateful to all who see the value in what’s happening here and are stepping up to support a healthier community.”

Rick Brashears is a farmer from the Blackey area of Letcher County, who sells his vegetables at the Whitesburg Farmers Market. He says the FARMACY program has been a “big help” to him.

“I think it’s the greatest thing ever,” Brashears said. “It’s healthy for the people who use the FARMACY prescriptions, it helps the farmers, and then the farmers’ money goes back into this community, so it helps everybody.”

Brashears said he has one customer who is pregnant and he loves to see her come with her FARMACY prescription to get fresh veggies and fruit every time the market is open.

“That makes me happy,” Brashears said.

Patients who are pregnant or suffering from juvenile diabetes can participate without meeting income guidelines.

Mary Jo Radosevich is another patient at MCHC and FARMACY program participant. She is grateful to be participating for the benefit of her daughter who is a type I diabetic.

“I love the variety of fresh produce, eggs and honey. A healthy diet is important for our entire family including our daughter. Fresh fruits and vegetables help her to stay in good control of her diabetes and enjoy good health.”

For more information, check out Letcher County Farmers Market.