Organizers say they are seeing signs of success from a program that partners health-care practitioners with Mid-Ohio Foodbank pantries to provide patients in need with prescriptions for fresh fruits and vegetables. Patients who receive prescriptions can access produce at any of a dozen of pantries on a weekly basis as opposed to the standard monthly schedule.

A partnership between the Mid-Ohio Foodbank and a handful of care practitioners is looking to reduce chronic health conditions by arming patients with prescriptions that give them more frequent access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Through the Mid-Ohio Farmacy program, also referred to as Produce Connect, patients are screened for food insecurity by being asked how often, in the past year, the food they bought ran out and they lacked the money to buy more, or they worried that food would run out before they had money to buy more.

Patients found to be in need are given food prescription cards that allow weekly visits to any of a dozen pantries to collect fresh produce for their households. This is in contrast to the traditional model that allows monthly access.

Matt Habash, Mid-Ohio Foodbank president and CEO, said the effort is part of a “food is health” strategy that began several years ago to connect people with fresh, nutritious food in an effort to learn whether it improves health. The results have been convincing, showing good health outcomes for clients who visit pantries more frequently, about 13 to 24 times a year.

“We have a high-value, low-cost health care solution. It’s called food,” Habash said.

Habash said it is changing the way pantries do business, providing an opportunity to look at the work differently, making access hours more convenient, encouraging people to come back often, and addressing the stigma associated with visiting pantries.

Partners in the effort are PrimaryOne Health, Physicians CareConnection and the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

The program is one of a number of ways that physicians are trying to address non-medical social issues that can affect overall health. Often called social determinants of health, these factors include an inability to access nutritious foods, a lack of transportation, inadequate education, job insecurity and poor-quality housing.

“There are millions of missed meals every year in our community alone,” said Dr. Aaron Clark, associate chair of the Wexner Medical Center’s department of family medicine, which began implementing the program in September. ” … This is one way we can start having that impact.”

Patients can access fresh produce weekly with no appointment needed, Clark said, and Mid-Ohio Foodbank lets physicians know when patients use the cards so they can assess whether it has improved health. Prescriptions last for one year and can be renewed if necessary.

Clients at PrimaryOne locations are screened for food insecurity at each appointment, and about 7,200 patients have filled a food prescription at least once since 2015, said dietitian Dan Gilmore.

“The benefit of this program on those chronic-disease outcomes is just absolutely huge,” Gilmore said.

He said a test that monitors average blood-sugar level is one marker used to assess progress. Among patients who have not used the program, the level rose from 7.9% to 8.6% over a year. Among patients who used the program at least three times, the level fell slightly, from 7.9% to 7.7%.

Diabetes is generally diagnosed when a patient consistently tests at 6.5% or higher.

Weight loss, which is also used to manage diabetes, provides another measure, Gilmore said. Over a year, PrimaryOne clients not using the program lost 0.2 pounds on average; those who visited pantries three to 12 times lost 5.8 pounds on average, and those who visited 13 or more times lost 10.9 pounds on average.

At the Wexner Medical Center, the program has been enrolling about 20 patients a week at two family medical clinics and a high-risk obstetrics and gynecology clinic, Clark said.

Practitioners will review how often patients visit pantries and measure their blood sugar level, weight/height ratio and blood pressure, he said.

Habash said the Farmacy program works in conjunction with an initiative that relies on surplus food to provide pantries with fresh produce that otherwise would be left in fields to rot.

“The idea of taking surplus fresh food in this country and using it to improve health is really a no-brainer,” he said.

Habash said the next step is to try to scale up the program to make it available to more people, to involve more health care practitioners, and to get private and public insurance plans to support food-as-health initiatives.

“This is, in many ways, about really partnering with health care to realize the importance that food has on your health,” he said. “A lot of times, we take that for granted. … We have a choice whether to be healthy. For these folks who did not have that choice, we’re trying to provide that choice.”