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UF Health Jax Prescribes Produce With New ‘Food Pharmacy’ Program

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Sydney Boles
/
WJCT News

A novel program at UF Health Jacksonville is making healthy food a part of the treatment plan. 

In a first for a Florida hospital, UF Health said, its program lets doctors write prescriptions for vegetables, which patients pick up from its food pharmacy. The idea is that for some medical issues — like high blood pressure or diabetes — a key part of treatment should be a healthy diet. But for many low-income people, accessing nutritious food is a real challenge. 

The food pharmacy, opened June 4, is part of UF Health’s Total Care Clinic, which serves patients at or below 200% of the poverty line. Already, 96 patients are enrolled in the nutrition program, with more than 100 on the waitlist. 

The food pharmacy is part of what the hospital and community partners are calling the Urban Health Alliance, created in part to help address the inequality of health outcomes in Northeast Florida. Of the 10 largest Florida counties by population, Duval County ranks last in outcomes, according to the hospital. 

“Our patients often live in food deserts,” said Ann-Marie Knight, vice president for community engagement at UF Health Jacksonville. “So if they can’t physically get to a grocery store because they lack the transportation, they have physical barriers, or they lack the finances to get to the grocery store, we want to provide that service.” 

Patients get personalized nutrition counselling, followed by enough food for their whole household, for at least six months. Best of all, from eggs to eggplants to sacks of potatoes, all of it is free of charge for patients thanks to donations from Florida Blue and several area nonprofits. 

Dr. Ross Jones, the medical director of community health at UF Health Jacksonville, said, “If I'm on a limited budget, I may not want to try new fruits and vegetables that I may not like. This way, we give them the chance to try these new fruits and vegetables, but then also teach them how to prepare it.” 

Ross said the medical community has known for a long time that prescribing medications can only do so much for patients whose life circumstances may make it difficult to get well. 

“This is our starting point, so we can find out more about our patients’ needs,” he said. “We know they have food insecurity, but what about their electric bill? Are they going to tell us they don’t have power at home? How do we get that information? So this is a good start, and a conversation starter for us.” 

Knight said the Total Care Clinic aims to address the “social determinants of health,” things like safe housing, a stable and sufficient income, and access to clean air, food and water, all of which are necessary for a healthy life but are often overlooked by the healthcare system. 

Knight is also planning to offer yoga, exercise classes, vision boarding, and conversations about healing from trauma in a yet-to-be renovated space in the same building, at the northeast corner of Boulevard and 8th Street.

Contact Sydney Boles at sboles@wjct.org, or on Twitter at @sydneyboles.