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Connecting N.C. Agriculture, Nutrition Education

box of fruits and vegetables at a farmers market
As part of the research project, patients will receive boxes of fruit and vegetables as well as nutrition education.

What if eating local fruits and vegetables wasn’t just “doctor’s orders,” but an actual prescription?

Researchers at NC State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Asheville have received a UNC System Inter-Institutional Grant, funded by the state General Assembly, to pilot a fruit-and-vegetable prescription program combined with a nutrition education program for low-income UNC Family Medicine patients suffering from diet-related chronic diseases.

Head shot of a woman in front of books in bookshelves
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow is one of the collaborative project’s three principal investigators.

“Food and health care are often seen as two separate, distinct issues, but this study seeks to explore how they are one inter-connected issue,” said Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, an assistant professor in NC State’s Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences and co-principal investigator of the study. Three other NC State faculty members in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who are working on the grant are Nancy Creamer, Kathryn Boys and Rebecca Dunning. The study’s other co-principal investigators are Drs. Alice Ammerman and Dana Neutze from UNC-Chapel Hill.

High-risk patients at UNC Family Medicine’s clinic will be referred to the program, which consists of connecting them with NC State’s SNAP-Education education program, Steps to Health, and providing a weekly allotment of locally grown produce from Maple Spring Gardens in Orange County, owned and operated by farmer Ken Dawson. Researchers will track changes in patients’ diet and health measures such as blood pressure, weight and blood sugar levels. They also will study the economic impact on Maple Spring Gardens—including the revenue and risks associated with the program and whether it can be expanded.

Patients enrolled in the pilot program will attend Steps to Health six-week nutrition education class taught by Caren Maloy, a senior nutrition educator with the NC State’s SNAP-Education grant. After each class, patients will be given a free produce box (called a CSA) from Maple Spring Garden Farms. Once the class series ends, patients will continue to receive free, locally grown produce for 23 weeks.

The study will examine participants’ health data before and after the program as well as patient-reported outcomes related to obtaining, preparing and eating fruits and vegetables.

North Carolina is one of the country’s top 10 agricultural states, with agriculture and agribusiness accounting for almost 20 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. However, the state also ranks as one of the top 10 food insecure states and has a high rate of farm loss, particularly among smaller farms.

“It is time to tackle food-system related problems with innovative and interdisciplinary approaches,” Haynes-Maslow said. “This inter-institutional grant could be a game-changer in the way we think about local food, nutrition education, and healthcare. Ideally, this study’s pilot results could make a compelling case to health insurance providers to bring programs like this to more low-income individuals and local farmers across the state.”

A version of this article appeared originally on the UNC School of Medicine website