Addressing the dietary needs of Central Oregonians, the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance (HDFFA) operates the VeggieRx program. VeggieRx is a fresh produce prescription program that aims to provide access to fresh, nutritious food for Central Oregon’s food insecure residents diagnosed with a diet-modifiable disease. Since locally grown produce comprises the entirety of their food supply, farmers are supported as well.
“The goal is for participants to make a little bit of a healthier choice every time one can,” Hannah Brzozowski, Program Director of VeggieRd, tells Food Tank.
VeggieRx participants receive a number of services. Participants receive fresh food vouchers, educational resources on nutrition, recipes, and personalized dietary advice from a registered nutritionist. HDFFA has also collaborated with nonprofit organization NeighborImpact to administer Fresh To You, a fresh food mobile pantry. As part of this program, food trucks drive into neighborhoods where VeggieRx participants can access meal kits known as “Fresh Harvest Kits.”
Currently, the program serves three Oregon countries: Crook, Jefferson, and Deschutes. Across these countries, 11.9 percent to 14.1 percent of its population is food insecure. 34.3 percent of Deschutes County’s food insecure residents do not qualify for federal assistance.
Brzozowski expresses concerns over the lack of institutional infrastructure ensuring that all Americans, regardless of socioeconomic and health status, can access quality meals.
“There are no policies other than social services that benefit food insecurity,” Brzozowski tells Food Tank. “It’s a little frustrating that the government doesn’t take food insecurity more seriously when there are small steps to be taken to first understand the concept, establish metrics and data, and then establish policies.”
Brzozowski advocates for state-led policy action that will support the growth of VeggieRx and similar food programs.
“A comprehensive statewide plan is needed in order to link the various VeggieRx programs that are all taking shape in different ways, and more resources will ultimately be needed to help community-based organizations that are attempting to do the heavy lifting,” Brzozowski tells Food Tank.
VeggieRx has made progress in addressing the institutional gap. Overall, the program has encouraged its participants to permanently adopt healthier diets. According to Brzozowski, over 80 percent of participants consumed less than two cups of produce daily before starting the program. Eight weeks later, participants have increased their produce consumption by 1.3-1.5 cups a day. Those who’ve completed the program have continued prioritizing produce in their meals.
Participants have expressed their enthusiasm towards the program. One participant, according to Brzozowski, believes that VeggieRx has the potential to improve the lives of the elderly and the sick.
“I wish this was offered every year for seniors or ill,” the participant notes. “It really makes a big difference in our lives. Thank you. I went to the doctors and my blood pressure is down. And it’s because of the fruit and vegetables. This makes a huge difference for me.”
VeggieRx is also mitigating the risk of social isolation. Another participant expressed their gratitude for the program in encouraging socialization and building community.
“It’s more than just access to produce,” the participant notes. “The walking, sunshine, interaction with vendors and other customers was positive and made the experience so much more than a shopping trip.”
Not only is VeggieRx generating positive physical and mental health outcomes for its participants, it is also creating economic opportunities for low-income farmers by connecting them to new clientele.
“We are losing farmers at an incredible rate all over our nation,” Brzozowski tells Food Tank. “Programs like this can help the new, small, or struggling farmer and protect our farmed lands.”
Despite the program’s successes, serving low-income rural communities remains a challenge. 50 percent of this year’s participants generate under $15,0000 of income a year, according to Brzozowski. As a result, communities encourage participants to drive out of town to access food. Restrictions to mobility, however, limit their abilities to do so.
“Many experience transportation obstacles, many have mobility obstacles or experience chronic pain,” Brzozowski tells Food Tank. “These are all issues that make it even harder for a population experiencing food insecurity to access fresh food.”
Although Hannah sees potential for VeggieRx to serve communities outside of Central Oregon, the program currently lacks the fiscal sustainability to do so. Nonetheless, Brzozowski remains hopeful that the vitality of VeggieRx will continue to persist and thrive.
“There is momentum behind VeggieRx,” Brzozowski tells Food Tank. It has a good chance of being a pillar program for addressing food insecurity.”