New hospital program orders food instead of drugs from 'farmacy'

1 in 4 American children regularly goes hungry, causing other medical issues

OAKLAND, Calif. – We all know the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” But what if you can’t afford the apple -- or any other fruit or vegetable?

One in 4 American children regularly goes hungry, so one San Francisco hospital developed an innovative program. 

Twice a month, low-income patients can pick up fresh produce, lean protein and whole grains free of charge.

The food "farmacy" program comes after a four-month hospital study during which patients were prescribed food as their "medicine."

“What we ended up finding was that it improved not only the health of the household, but we also saw changes in the children,” said Dr. Larissa Estes, of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.

Monika Russi said she is always on the prowl for ways to keep her son healthy, especially after he was diagnosed with autism last year. She was surprised when doctors pulled out their prescription pads and ordered food, not pharmaceuticals. 

“Being a single mom with two kids and trying to eat healthy is a challenge most of the time,” Russi said.

The study also revealed healthy eating not only alleviates symptoms among children, it can even reduce the impact of chronic diseases among their parents. 

“I’m a medical doctor and I prescribe medicine, but I always like to take the natural approach whenever possible, and food is medicine,” said Dr. Gena Lewis, of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. 

Russi said the difference in her son since starting the program is remarkable.

“It does alleviate a lot of the symptoms associated with some of his medical challenges,” she said.

Lewis said prescribing food is one step in the healing process.

“If we don’t deal with, and know about, and help families with the basics of their life, then we can’t get to the important medical issues at hand," Lewis said.

Doctors also report once children are introduced to more fruits and vegetables, they get more interested in trying new fresh foods.

Other programs similar to the food farmacy have sprouted up in Pennsylvania and Boston.