Unity Care NW expands Whatcom Veggie Rx food prescription program

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After a successful trial year of helping patients at risk for nutrition deficiency and food insecurity access healthy food, Unity Care NW is continuing the Whatcom Veggie Rx program throughout 2020.

Through the program, patients of multiple health care clinics in Whatcom County who have type 2 diabetes or are experiencing food insecurity can receive a monthly $40 voucher to purchase fruits and vegetables from the two Bellingham Community Food Co-op locations. The program also offers hands-on learning through cooking classes and work with a dietician.

Unity Care NW is working to go from 67 participants to about 100 for the program’s second year. The number of current participants is near 80, said Megan Stephenson, Unity Care NW’s wellness resource coordinator. The expansion comes after the clinic was able to secure additional funding from fundraising and grant funding.

Estimates show that about 30,000 people in Whatcom County could face food insecurity, according to data used in a 2018 assessment from the Whatcom County Health Department.

“Food can be medicine,” said Jennifer Moon, a spokesperson for Unity Care NW. “Through access to healthy food, people can help improve their chronic conditions.”

The voucher program will continue amid Covid-19 closures, although other aspects of the program that require face-to-face interaction have temporarily disbanded, Stephenson said. Unity Care NW is continuing to check on the wellbeing of patients over the phone, instead of the usual monthly in-person meetings.

Planning for the program, a brainchild of the Bellingham Food Bank, started at the end of 2017 with the goal of improving health by removing the financial barrier to healthy food, said Max Morange, emerging projects director for the food bank. The program started as a pilot in March 2019.

“The Bellingham Food Bank has long been aware that health and hunger are things that should be in the same conversation, but historically, hunger and food insecurity have not been part of the public health discourse,” Morange said.

The program was modeled after Gorge Grown Veggie Rx, a program in Hood River, Oregon that mirrors the emergence of similar programs across the country, Moon said. The idea led to a collaboration in its first year between Unity Care NW, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, PeaceHealth and the Community Health Plan of Washington (CHPW), a nonprofit that provides health insurance in Washington.

Unity Care NW is set to continue the program this year in partnership with the food co-op and CHPW. The program will continue for another six months with PeaceHealth and Sea Mar, a Sea Mar health education manager said. PeaceHealth is donating funds to help sustain the program at Sea Mar, which will match those funds, a PeaceHealth community health director said. If additional funding is available, both Sea Mar and PeaceHealth would like to continue the program beyond six months, representatives from both clinics said.

“It’s worked out incredibly well,” Morange said. “The partnership has been great and it has brought those three healthcare providers, which typically don’t partner on things, together in the same room.”

A 2016 study of a Veggie Rx program in New York found that the body mass index of low-income participants diagnosed with obesity and type 2 diabetes or hypertension improved significantly in five weeks.

Early reports signal positive effects on health from the first year of the program. Improved blood sugar levels were found in 67 percent of Unity Care NW patients, according to a press release on the program’s expansion. One patient quit insulin, lost 67 pounds and had his paycheck doubled due to increased productivity from higher energy levels, the release stated.

“That’s an accomplishment. Whether it’s directly attributable or causative to the Veggie Rx program, it causes everyone to cheer,” Morange said of the patient who stopped taking insulin.

Stephenson hopes the program gets picked up by insurance companies and bigger departments of health that can manage larger amounts of funding and expand the program to more households.

The program has become another example of how the model of food prescription programs can make a difference in people’s lives, Moon said. “The goal of programs like this is ultimately that this will become a health insurance benefit,” she said. “Health insurers will see the value of providing fresh fruits and vegetables to food-insecure patients as a health benefit in their insurance.”

The food bank helped fund the program when it launched in March 2019 but is stepping back for the coming years.

“Our hope all along and acknowledgement of our resources was that we would be able to kick-start this program, get it going and then ask either insurers or individual health care providers to continue the work,” Morange said. “We’re really pleased that Unity Care NW is taking on that challenge.”

The Bellingham co-op is located at 1220 North Forest Street and 315 Westerly Road. The co-op will be operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, with the first hour of the day reserved for people at high risk for Covid-19. The co-op asks that no one enter the store if they have signs of sickness and that customers wash their hands or use hand sanitizer and practice safe social distancing.

For information on the program, visit whatcomveggierx.com.

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