Newswise — MAYWOOD, IL – In an innovative program to improve the health of low-income patients, Loyola Medicine and its partners are giving patients a weekly cornucopia of fresh vegetables grown on urban farms.

It's called VeggieRx. Every Thursday afternoon at the Loyola Center for Health on Roosevelt, participating patients receive a free 10-pound pack of produce, along with recipes, weekly nutrition education and cooking demonstrations.

 "Our patients love it," said family physician Kimi Suh, MD.

VeggieRx is a collaboration among Loyola Medicine, Loyola University Chicago, Windy City Harvest and Proviso Partners for Health. Windy City Harvest is the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture education and jobs-training initiative to help build a local food system, healthier communities, and a greener economy. Windy City Harvest operates urban farms in Chicago and suburban Maywood and Lake County.

Dr. Suh said studies have shown that increasing vegetable consumption improves health. "We're starting to realize that food is an important part of treatment," she said.

During the growing and harvest seasons, VeggieRx is offered from 4 pm to 6 pm every Thursday at the Loyola Center for Health, 1211 W. Roosevelt, Maywood. In addition to receiving a free VeggieRx pack, participants receive coupons to double SNAP (food stamp) purchases at Windy City Harvest farm stands.

“The vegetables vary each week, depending on what's being harvested in the urban farms,” said Brittany Calendo, Windy City Harvest's VeggieRx coordinator. “For example, the vegetables given away one recent Thursday included leeks, scallions, purple top turnips, beets, collards, cabbage and garlic, along with information on how to store and prepare them.”

Every week, Mary Mora, RD, does a cooking demonstration featuring that week's vegetables, and gives a nutrition talk on topics such as sugar, sodium, heart-healthy fats and reading food labels. Ms. Mora is a dietitian with the Proviso Partners for Health and a member of Loyola University Chicago's Parkinson School of Health Sciences and Public Health.

The program has inspired VeggieRx participant Kim Berley Moore of Bellwood to eat more fresh vegetables. She said they taste much better than canned vegetables, and don't have added salt. Ms. Moore's niece, Ashley Moore of Oak Park, said “VeggieRx is showing me a fast, efficient way to incorporate vegetables into my everyday life." And Ashley's mother, Candace Moore of Chicago, said “VeggieRx is teaching her how to make dishes such as collard greens and Mexican cabbage soup that are both delicious and healthy.”

VeggieRx addresses the widespread problem of food insecurity, which affects many low-income people, said Lena Hatchett, PhD, executive lead of Proviso Partners for Health and an associate professor of medical education at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is supporting VeggieRx, defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

Dr. Hatchett and colleagues are gathering data to test their premise that VeggieRx will prove to be a cost-effective way to reduce the toll of obesity-related conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"We believe a small investment in food will have a large benefit in people's health," Dr. Hatchett said.