FarmRx: How the Athens Farmers Market is Using Real Food to Combat Food Insecurity and Diet-Related Illnesses in Athens, Ga

The Farm Rx program in Athens-Clarke County partners with local organizations to help combat food insecurity and diet related illnesses by providing affordable produce for low-income individuals, using real food as real medicine. FarmRx coordinator Monica Bledsoe says participants are written prescriptions through partnering healthcare providers to exchange for wooden tokens spent on fruits and vegetables at the Athens Farmers Market. They are also offered a 10-week course on nutritional and physical health. 

 

Food insecurity is defined as the inability to acquire, at some point in the year, enough food due to insufficient resources and 20,320 Clarke County residents are food insecure, according to Feeding America data from 2018.

 

FarmRx participants are low-income adults suffering from diet related illnesses and determined food insecure by a two-question survey vetted through the USDA, according to Bledsoe. Participants are usually already in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or eligible but have not applied.  

 

“A typical cohort is around 40 participants per year,” said Bledsoe, “but [throughout Covid-19] we actually had to cut it by half because we lost the funding we usually see from St Mary’s [hospital] as they had to pivot all of their community resources to Covid relief.”

 

Athens-Clarke County is an area of little to no reliable sources of food that can also provide sustainable nutrition for low-income individuals which classifies the county as a food desert by the USDA Economic Research Services. Cariene James, FarmRx participant,says she was grateful for the sustainable access to farm-fresh produce provided through the Athens Farmers Market in a video overview of the program.

 

“It’s a plus because I can still eat what I want to eat without worrying if I have the money to buy it,” James said.

 

Modeled after the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx), Farm Rx has been in operation for 3 years and supported 19 households in 2019, totaling in over $9,700 worth of produce purchased from the Athens Farmers Market. In a 2019 study on the effects of FVRx programs on children’s health, researchers found that these programs increase healthy produce consumption in low-income families.

 

Farm Rx is strengthened through local partnerships including Athens Farmers Market, Athens Nurses Clinic, UGA Snap-Ed, UGA Office of Sustainability, St. Mary’s, Mercy Health Clinic and UGA Crop and Soil Sciences. Mercy Health Clinic nursing volunteer Julia Hardell has had personal experience working with medical professionals to combat diet-related illnesses in Clarke County low-income residents.

 

“A lot of the patients we see are severely obese coming from low-income households,” Hardell said. “We have an in-house registered dietician that would work with individuals to set goals and develop new eating habits. FarmRx was definitely a part of that.”

 

The FarmRx program only lasts for  six months then directly leads into the Athens Farmers Market Double SNAP program, which doubles SNAP dollars, and continues sustainable access to produce, according to Bledsoe.

 

“[The Double SNAP program] takes the wonderfully organic and local produce our farmers sell and makes it as accessible as regular produce at Walmart,” said Bledsoe. “[Through FarmRx] we’re trying to build that habit of purchasing produce and showing [participants] they can afford it through the different benefits afforded to them.”