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Hamilton health-care workers are prescribing fresh fruit and veggies. Patients say it’s the boost they need

From a large paper bag, Maria Tunon pulls out a crispy bunch of red leaf lettuce, quarts of local cherries and potatoes, and fresh orange peppers, apples and cobs of corn. 

“It’s nice quality and not expensive,” Tunon said, smiling.

Salad is on the menu tonight, she said, as prescribed.

Community development worker Leah Jenzen runs FVRx program and sometimes adds to the boxes of produce grown in Compass Community Health’s garden. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Tunon is one of 30 Hamilton residents who are part of Compass Community Health’s FVRx program and receive a prescription for a produce box every other week. 

The program is the only one of its kind in Hamilton, and a year in, is a success with an “ever-growing wait list,” said community development worker Leah Jenzen. 

“We definitely feel a huge need,” they said. “This is just a tiny piece in helping food security in Hamilton. It’s definitely one of the biggest areas we’re working on.”

Compass health-care providers write produce prescriptions for patients who struggle with chronic diseases like diabetes and would otherwise not be able to afford fresh food, Jenzen said. 

Patients pay $10 for each haul, which is sourced by local online grocery store MRKTBOX.

Coun. Cameron Kroestch also recently committed over $5,000 to the program from Ward 2’s budget, which will carry it through to January, Jenzen said.

A full fridge of leafy greens

FVRx is a type of social prescribing, said Brent Esau, Compass’s chief operating officer. 

“Health-care providers recognize there are other factors affecting your health other than lifestyle and genetics,” Esau said. “It’s recognizing that social and community programming impact your health as much as a medication prescription.” 

Man holds pepper and lettuce in garden
Chris Hasler says FVRx has helped him eat healthier and control his blood sugar levels so he doesn’t have to take medication. (Samantha Beattie/CBC)

Chris Hasler is pre-diabetic and receives the box. He said it’s helped him eat greens and fewer carbs, which is important in managing his blood sugar levels without taking medication.

He noted $10 at the grocery store will only get him a bag of apples. Through the prescription program, $10 gets enough food to last two weeks.

“It’s great price-wise,” he said. 

Vanessa Iker said the produce prescription has transformed her life. 

She is also pre-diabetic, experiencing numbness in feet and hands and shooting pain down her legs. 

She said she couldn’t afford fresh produce and would eat a lot of canned and frozen food. But now she always has fruit and vegetables on hand that she’s excited to prepare — “fancy carrots,” cream of broccoli soup and kale smoothies, she said.   

“When I open my fridge, it’s full,” she said. “There’s always some sort of fruit — apples, oranges, bananas — always.” 

After eating healthier for months, Iker said, she feels more energetic, her skin is glowing, and some of the pain and numbness has improved.

“I’m very proud of myself,” she said.

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