Examining a New Prescription

A photo of the exterior of Gillings School of Public Health

A new project funded by a $765,000 grand from The Duke Endowment will investigate the benefits of food prescription programs. These programs will provide a monthly electronic benefit for participants to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. In early studies, this intervention has been shown to improve health outcomes, but previous studies have not examined implications for cost.

“The early findings are already powerful: people are buying healthier food because of this program,” said Shu Wen Ng, PhD, Distinguished Scholar in Public Health Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the principal investigator of this new project. “We aim to determine the return on investments from a produce prescription program, with the goal of catalyzing the food-as-medicine movement among health care payers.”

Researchers will work closely with participating health clinics and analyze electronic health records to determine changes in health outcomes and compare them with patients with similar characteristics but not receiving the produce prescriptions. These effects will then be quantified in terms of cost, based on results of a literature review, to determine return on investment for the program, not just in terms of health improvements for participants but also based on dollars saved by the health system.

Prior to the pandemic, food insecurity increased health care costs in North Carolina by an average of $1,400 per person. By providing comprehensive evidence of the cost savings associated with these programs, this study is important for future efforts to scale-up food-prescription programs in N.C. and beyond.

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