By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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The next time you stop by the supermarket pharmacy to pick up a prescription, swing by the produce section. It could be just as important to your health.

“If you just went around and looked at people’s plates, most of them have more meats and grains and less fruits and vegetables,” said Jo Ann Carson, PhD., professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It really should be the opposite.”

That’s the idea behind National Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Month, proclaimed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture every June and promoted by nutrition advocates everywhere. For the first time, the American Heart Association is joining the celebration as part of its Healthy For Good program that encourages people to take small steps regarding diet, exercise and lifestyle choices that add up to a big difference.

“June is the time of year fruits and vegetables are at their prime,” said Carson, who chairs the AHA’s Nutrition Committee. “You get great-tasting produce, so it’s a great time for people to enjoy them and make a change in their diet.”

Most of us probably should. A 2015 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control concluded that 75 percent of Americans fall short of government recommendations for eating fruit (1½ to 2 cups per day) and 87 percent don’t meet the vegetable guideline (2 to 3 cups per day).

The health consequences of that include obesity and higher risks of everything from heart disease to cancer to diabetes.

Campaigns to encourage healthier eating have ranged from public service announcements to celebrity chefs promoting veggie-loaded recipes to former First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden. But a new phrase has sprouted into the conversation in recent years: prescription produce.

“Eating fruits and vegetables is absolutely essential to a healthy life,” said Gabrielle Langholtz, marketing director of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing healthy food to low-income people. “But if you only have a few dollars a day to spend on food, you’re not buying broccoli and green beans and blueberries, you’re buying Minute Rice and ramen noodles.”

Wholesome Wave, which is based in Bridgeport, Connecticut, works with doctors and health clinics around the country to change that. With grants and donations, its FVRx program provides “prescriptions” – coupons redeemable at farmers’ markets or grocery stores, but only for fruits and vegetables.

“In the short term families in poverty get to eat better and the farmers make more money,” Langholtz said. “In the longer term there are very real health benefits and healthcare savings.”

In a similar program, a Waco, Texas, organization called World Hunger Relief is providing free boxes of vegetables to low-income families at three family health centers in the city. The organization also operates Veggie Vans, which bring discounted produce to areas that don’t have good supermarkets nearby.

“For years we’ve been instructing patients to eat healthier in order to help prevent disease or to treat existing disease, but haven’t had the option to immediately gain access to that healthy food,” Jackson Griggs, M.D., a Waco physician taking part in the program, told the Waco Tribune-Herald. “Through the prescription program, we’ve been able to eliminate barriers to having access.”

Langholtz said her organization is encouraged by efforts around the country to make healthy eating more affordable. Food banks are working to offer more produce and not just nonperishable items, she said, and Wholesome Wave is launching a program called Practically Perfect to distribute produce that may be blemished or flawed but is still edible and healthy.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re seeing a real impact,” she said.

Carson said the concept of prescription produce is appealing, if you don’t take it too literally. Replacing unhealthy foods with more fruits and vegetables can help control weight, lower blood pressure, perhaps even ward off some medications.

“But we don’t want the public to get the impression that it’s the broccoli or the mushroom or any one thing that makes a difference, so you don’t have to worry about what else you do,” she said. “It’s about how it all fits on your plate.”