Cultivating Nutrition

Benzie Co. debuts fruit-and-vegetable prescription program on peels of successful TC pilot

Last year, some 170 individuals with chronic diseases or conditions like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes took a step in Traverse City toward better health.

They did so via a new type of prescription: fruits and vegetables sold at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons outdoor farmers market.

It was a pilot program that netted positive outcomes among patients, who were referred by Munson Family Practice. And this year, the concept is coming to Benzie County, through a partnership that will not only tap the facilities and weekly farmers market at nonprofit Grow Benzie, but also take fresh fruits and vegetables and nutritional education on the road to points throughout the rural community where referred residents can be served.

Debuting in June is the Benzie County fruit and vegetable prescription program – a venture modeled after the Traverse City pilot and funded by a $36,015 grant from Rotary Charities of Traverse City to the Munson Healthcare Regional Foundation. The program is a collaboration between: Shape Up North, a five-county initiative through Munson Community Health; Munson Healthcare’s Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital in Frankfort; and Grow Benzie, a Benzonia-based organization with a mission, in part, “to enrich the region by connecting people to healthful foods,” said executive director Josh Stoltz.

The program will target some of the priorities – like obesity and access to healthy foods – established through a recent community health needs assessment. Working through some area health care providers, community service agencies and others who will make referrals, a goal is to identify and enroll 125 people who are overweight, obese or have a chronic disease, said Alyson Kass, coordinator of Shape Up North. Information on the program will be available on Shape Up North’s website,

Program participants will sign up to go to Grow Benzie’s farmers market, where they’ll attend a nutrition education session and cooking demonstration and at conclusion receive a $25 coupon to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, Kass said. Each participant can receive a coupon on a total of four visits, for a maximum $100.

Participants will be surveyed at the beginning and end of the program, self-reporting information like the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables they consume daily and how they rate their overall health.

The main outcome sought: Increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, Kass said. “We’re really looking for behavior change.”

It was evident at the close of the Traverse City pilot. Among participants were reports they felt healthier, had increased their average daily fruit and vegetable consumption by nearly one cup, and felt motivated to continue to eat fruits and vegetables daily, according to Shape Up North.

The Traverse City program this year is expanding to include patients referred by Traverse Health Clinic and area pediatricians.

That expansion is funded through two grants awarded to Shape Up North.

Kass said last year, participants ended up visiting the farmers market more than the four times for which they received coupons.

And participants also brought people with them – all leading to increased business for market vendors as a result of the program, she said.

“A good number of the people that participated, would probably never have gone to the market otherwise,” Kass said. And “most people when they come to the market, don’t come alone.”

Grow Benzie’s Stoltz said the coupons’ $12,500 in additional cash flow through the market “will be a boon” to the farmers that sell their goods there.

“There’s going to be a benefit for the farmers because of the advertising for this particular program, and the foot traffic,” he said.

And the Benzie County program has a unique aspect: A mobile farmer’s market trailer is in the works that will house shelves of produce and will be pulled behind a food truck Grow Benzie operates in the summer months. The trailer is being built by Benzie Central High School students who participate in an after-school industrial arts program. The “Hive Minded” program, which draws its name from producing wooden boxes in which bees reside and make honey, teaches carpentry and woodworking skills.

Kass said the mobile market is an “awesome” way to help eliminate potential transportation difficulties for some program participants.

“I feel like it’s a really great model that can be reproduced in other rural communities,” she said. As in the Traverse City program, gas cards will also be available.

A dietitian from Paul Oliver Memorial is part of the program and will be at the Grow Benzie farmers market to provide nutrition education and be a resource both at the market and on the road with the trailer.

Peter Marinoff, president of Paul Oliver, said the collaboration with Grow Benzie has many benefits.

“I think by working with Grow Benzie, we’re working with a community partner to access more community members and help them to be able to make the connections with our registered dietitian, as well as just getting access to food,” he said. “By coordinating under one roof…hopefully we can have a greater, more sustainable impact on people looking for healthy options.”

The farmers market can also be a more comfortable location than the clinical, sterile environs of a hospital. “That is important as well,” Marinoff said. “To have it at Grow Benzie is great, because it’s not in a hospital environment. Sometimes people just don’t like going to the hospital, because when they go to the hospital, they think sick.”

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.