An Apple a Day is an Rx Away: How Willy Street Co-op is Ushering Change with a Groundbreaking Program

Willy Street Co-op group
Photo by The Creative Company

We have all heard the adage “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but Willy Street Co-op took the wisdom and the research behind the message into the public health and consumer arenas. Although in order to get the apple, people will first need a doctor.

Through a partnership with UW Health Northeast Family Medical Center, Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin’s HungerCare Coalition, and Public Health Madison & Dane County, the Co-op began a life-changing pilot program titled the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program, or FVRx.

Willy Street Co-op, an organization known for its leadership in healthy and sustainable living, had already been working with Public Health Madison & Dane County on their Double Dollars pilot project, which provides $5 in vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables on every $5 spent by a customer using a QUEST card.

The City of Madison reached out to the Co-op after hearing that a few other cities had started programs that allowed healthcare professionals to prescribe fresh fruits and vegetables to individuals who demonstrated a need. Willy Street Co-op enthusiastically embraced the project and teamed up with UW Health Northeast Family Medical Center and Second Harvest Food Bank of Southern Wisconsin’s HungerCare Coalition to apply for a grant from a program the Co-op learned about through its national cooperative association. A program called Wholesome Wave.

Wholesome Wave makes healthy foods affordable by doubling the value of food stamps when spent on fruits and vegetables, and by working with doctors to prescribe produce. Wholesome Wave awarded the City of Madison a $23,120 grant, and the Co-op started accepting FVRxs on February 1, 2017.

“We found the individual strengths of our partners and the enthusiasm to create such a program inspirational,” says Brendon Smith, Willy Street Co-op’s Communications Director. “We used our partners’ strengths to create this useful program.”

The pilot program’s process begins with the design that allows Northeast Family Medical Center patients to qualify for aid to help purchase produce and join the Co-op if their doctor deems that they are “food insecure.” Food security means that a person has reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food—otherwise they can face serious health effects across their lifetime.

To qualify for the aid, a patient must answer yes to one of two questions: in the last year, have you worried about having enough food until you could buy more? And in the last year, have you actually run out of food before you could buy more?

If the patient qualifies, they receive a packet that includes a voucher to become a Co-op owner, and 60 two-dollar vouchers that can be used for fresh produce. Participants can also join a program at the Co-op that offers an additional 10 percent off of groceries and a free coupon to attend one of the Co-op classes.

Already, just after initiation, the program’s popularity and need exceed original planning. The $23,120 in grant funds were initially allocated to provide support for approximately 150 patients at UW Health Northeast Family Medical Center. Within the first few weeks of running food security screenings, UW Health had already prescribed almost all 150 FVRx packets. The City again worked with Public Health Madison & Dane County and Wholesome Wave to make adjustments to the grant allocation so that the Co-op could offer FVRx to 185 patients.

By the end of February, 167 FVRx prescriptions were distributed, and by May (at the time of this writing), 45 patients had already used their Co-op Owner vouchers to either become Owners or make an equity investment and enroll in the Access Discount Program while 979 FVRx vouchers had been redeemed.

“We are grateful for this partnership and the words of encouragement we have heard from our customers about this new initiative,” Brendon says. “The fact that almost all of the prescriptions were given out in the first month shows a tremendous need for this kind of program, and we are honored to be a part of it.”

The pilot program partners are now monitoring redemption and planning for future funding. The Co-op is also evaluating how well FVRx is working for people, and will be making improvements based on patient feedback to be able to continue the program.

Kirsten Moore, director of cooperative services, says, “The data we collect from these pilots will help us determine how to continue and how to fund the programs for the future. We already have some great ideas to share soon.”

Now, for current participants, an apple a day is an Rx away. Though the program is at capacity, Willy Street Co-op is evaluating its results and seeing what they’d like to improve. They are looking forward to doing it again, and are hoping that other grocers, health centers, and counties will take notice and turn the tide of thinking that affordable or cheap means unhealthy junk food.

Here’s to a future of eating well to be well, for all.

Article provided by The Creative Company on behalf of Willy Street Co-op. Find out more about Willy Street Co-op at willystreet.coop .