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Food Rx: Nourishing health beyond prescriptions

Written By: Vicki Powers, UT Physicians | Updated: July 4, 2024
Various colorful vegetables on display

The food prescription initiative, Food Rx, enables UT Physicians to promote healthy eating in a tangible way. (Photo provided by Houston Food Bank)

Imagine a prescription pad with four words scribbled across the paper: fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a tactic used to rewrite the script on health.

Food prescription programs bridge the gap between hunger and well-being, transforming prescriptions into sustenance. Instead of medication, it gets to the root of food insecurity paired with social services.

Meeting community needs

Partnering with Houston Food Bank, UT Physicians offers this food prescription initiative, Food Rx, to targeted patients and people in the community. Care team members at two UT Physicians clinics refer patients to the program. UT Physicians Multispecialty – Jensen and UT Physicians Multispecialty – International District provide this free resource to address food insecurity.

Community health education specialists with UT Physicians help screen and register clients for Food Rx assistance. The team focuses on wellness programming, which encompasses classes relating to chronic disease management, pregnancy, physical activity, and more. Participants in these classes can enroll in Food Rx.

Healthy foods for healthy results

Shopper picking fruits
A key aspect of the Food Rx program is allowing clients to have a choice and shop in person. (Photo provided by Houston Food Bank)

UT Physicians is making a difference. Since launching Food Rx in 2019, 400 clients have participated in the program, including 140 active clients today. A total of 30 enrolled in the last fiscal year, along with 35 additional clients from the Healthy Eating Active Living (HEAL) class for pregnant women and mothers with young infants.

“We know that when patients are concerned about making sure their families have food, they likely won’t prioritize other needs, like their own health,” said Natalia Williams, project manager with Healthcare Transformation Initiatives at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. “Through Food Rx, we can provide healthy food options and nutrition education.”

One client, Gregory Boutte, 50, believes the healthy food from his Food Rx prescription kept him out of the hospital when he was without diabetes medicine. In fact, he thinks the food worked better than his usual medication. His A1C level dropped three points.

“Numbers don’t lie,” Boutte said. “It has to be what helped because I didn’t change anything. I’m grateful for those eight weeks in the program.”

Boutte received his healthy food prescription through participation in a chronic disease management class. He received food three times during his class. This partnership allowed him to select 30 pounds of fruits, vegetables, and other healthy items from a designated food pantry in the city.

Battling the barriers

At times, barriers prevent clients from participating in the program. To join, clients must meet specific criteria, such as having reliable transportation. They can designate a substitute shopper if they can’t make it to the market.

“It’s a team effort to work through the different barriers patients may have,” Williams said. “Sometimes it can be challenging for a patient to prioritize, but we hear great things once they access the food.”

Partnering for good

The Houston Food Bank believes access to nutritious food and health education helps individuals better manage their health and lowers the stress of grocery costs. This can translate to improved health outcomes and decreased food insecurity.

Houston Food Bank mobile trailer
Clients enrolled in Food Rx redeem their food prescription twice a month at Food for Change markets or mobile pantries throughout Greater Houston. (Photo provided by Houston Food Bank)

“Our Food Rx program is an intervention strategy that goes beyond emergency food assistance by addressing the root causes of food insecurity,” said Jasmynn Lahner, MS, RD, LD, nutrition and partnerships senior manager at Houston Food Bank. “The hope of Houston Food Bank and UT Physicians is that patients enrolled in the Food Rx program can worry less about putting food on the table and focus more on improving their health.”

Clinic staff are proud of those taking advantage of the program and how it’s translating into improved health. They seize the opportunity to have open conversations about healthy eating and managing chronic diseases. One mom who completed the HEAL class was so grateful for the food partnership that she excitedly told program staff about the foods she had received: a bag of chicken, vegetables, oranges, nuts, and other fruit.

“It’s encouraging to hear how excited patients are to have access to healthy food,” Williams said. “Our clinics screen for food insecurity, and we discuss healthy eating in our classes, so it’s rewarding to provide that tangible help.”

UT Physicians is working to expand Food Rx to additional clinics. It’s a privilege to continue making a difference in the community.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.