Latest Case Studies/ Human Impact

Helping Veterans With Produce Prescriptions

In elementary school, Kenny A. Joyner decided to become a Marine. His young logic held that Marines must work on submarines, which had become an obsession after a school trip to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

His understanding deepened as he got older, but he never changed his mind. So, during his junior year, he dropped out of high school and joined the Marine Corps.

Kenny Joyner as a young Marine. (Photo courtesy of Kenny Joyner)

 

That early decision had long-term consequences. Marching up and down mountains carrying over 100 pounds on his back contributed years later to degenerative disc and joint disease, he believes, and that led to his current disability and weight gain.

Enter the Eat Well produce prescription program.

Working through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the initiative provides $40 a month to veterans to spend solely on fruits and vegetables. It’s helping Joyner escape pain, drop the pounds, and leave his wheelchair folded in a closet.

“Prior to this, I might buy apples once a month, but I was not eating fresh vegetables. I used to eat four ice cream sandwiches a day,” Joyner recalls. “Now I have a whole lot more energy and my cholesterol and pre-diabetic labs are much better.”

Joyner has lost 36 pounds in two months as he coupled the produce prescription program with a weight loss program. “This has changed my eating habits for the rest of my life,” he says. “Instead of medicating us with drugs, medicate us with a produce prescription. That way, we take care of the underlying problem.”

Kenny Joyner in front of the White House this year after speaking at a panel in Washington, DC. (Photo courtesy of Kenny Joyner)

70,000 Served in North Carolina

The Eat Well program Joyner endorses is run by Reinvestment Partners, a grantee of The Rockefeller Foundation and a North Carolina nonprofit founded in 1986 to address problems of poverty and social injustice in areas of food, housing, community development, health, and financial services.

“‘Food is Medicine’ interventions, such as having doctors prescribe produce, support health, and improve access to healthy foods. We believe these programs should become an everyday part of health care delivery,” says Diana Johnson, Food Initiative Program Officer for The Rockefeller Foundation.

“Veterans fought for our country, and they shouldn’t have to worry about where their next meal will come from,” Johnson says. “Yet food insecurity among veterans is astoundingly high. In fact, USDA data shows that veterans are more likely to be food insecure than non-veterans.”

Food is Medicine programs are a major focus of The Rockefeller Foundations’ strategy to combat diet-related diseases. The Foundation is committed to working with large health systems that are dedicated to improving the nutrition security of their patients, and has been in discussions with the Veteran’s Health Administration (VHA) about how the two might work together to extend produce prescriptions to more veterans.

Reinvestment Partners initiated its produce prescription program in 2018. In 2020, the nonprofit expanded enrollment from 4,000 to 37,000. Just this autumn, they crossed over to more than 70,000 North Carolinians served. About 18 months ago, they began to work with the VHA to create and implement a system to serve vets.

Just Scratching the Surface of the Possible

Military service is associated with physical and psychological stressors, and veterans, who number about 19 million across the United States, also are found to suffer from several chronic co-morbidities at higher levels than the average U.S. population—including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and others.

From right to left: Joyner, Leftwich, and Harris speak at a panel in Washington DC. (Photo courtesy of Reinvestment Partners)

Overall in the U.S., about half the deaths caused by heart disease, stroke or diabetes are estimated to be linked to poor diets, and unhealthy diets contribute to approximately 678,000 deaths each year.

So far, Eat Well has signed up more than 1,800 vets in North Carolina.

“But we haven’t scratched the surface of what’s possible,” says Neal Curran, Reinvestment Partners’ Director of Food Programs.

Joyner and other vets agree. “More vets need to learn about this program,” says Christopher Smith, a fellow veteran who served in the army and told Joyner about the program. “Sometimes a vet knows what he should be eating but cannot afford it.”

  • Giving veterans money targeted and restricted to fruit and vegetables can meet a vital need, and at the same time make them feel cared for.
    Neal Curran
    Reinvestment Partners’ Director of Food Programs

A Vet Urges Wider Reach for Produce Rx

Burdened with a rough childhood, Meredith Leftwich ran away from her Philadelphia home at age 12. From then through high school, she was either homeless or in and out of group shelters.

She was 18 when a recruiter suggested the army. Based out of Fort Bragg, she served in Kuwait, Iraq, and Qatar.

Five years later, she returned home suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What followed was a tough period of unemployment and substance abuse before she moved to Raleigh, N.C. three years later, got involved with the local VA office, “and started figuring things out.”

Meredith Leftwich in Washington DC in September. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Leftwich)

Her health remained a challenge, though. Pre-diabetic, she found the medication she was prescribed didn’t work for her.

In March of this year, this single mother of two fell into a diabetic coma. “My blood sugar was over 400. I thought I was having a heart attack,” Leftwich says. She was prescribed up to five insulin shots a day.

Through her connection with the VA, the produce prescription program put her on the recovery path by May. “I like lettuce and fresh green beans and all kinds of fruit—oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, cantaloupe, watermelons,” she says. “And now I can afford them.”

Her blood sugar levels have dropped and she’s lost 38 pounds. An added benefit? Her children are eating better also.

  • A lot of my buddies don’t know about this program until I tell them. We have to get the word out. I feel it should be offered to everyone who can benefit from it.
    Meredith Leftwich
    U.S. Army veteran

As a side benefit, the program may help support the fight against climate change. What we eat affects not only our health, but the environment.

Plant-based foods – such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, and lentils – generally use less energy, land, and water, and have lower greenhouse gas intensities than animal-based foods.

“When we increase the demand for fruits and vegetables,” Curran says, “there could be knock-on effects for climate mitigation. It’s potentially a small part of the mosaic of changes that need to happen to create a cumulative effect.”

Making one’s diet more plant-based can help reduce pressure on forests and land used to grow animal feed, which in turn protects biodiversity, the earth’s ecosystems, and people living in poverty who are bearing the brunt of climate change.

Produce Prescriptions Empower Patients

Ce’Monia Michele Harris’s path to the military was different from Leftwich’s; she grew up as a “military brat.” She loved her family home in Spring Lake, N.C., near Fort Bragg, where they grew peach, pear, apple, and plum trees, along with corn and okra. But she also loved the global travel that came with her father’s job in the army and exposed her to different cultures.

Ce’Monia Michele Harris in the U.S. Air Force. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Harris)

Ce’Monia Michele Harris, who served in the U.S. Air Force from July 7, 1986 to July 6, 1996. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Harris)

For Harris, it was a no-brainer for to enlist in the U.S. Air Force on July 7, 1986, at age 20. She planned to be a lifer. Then, while stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and coaching a softball game, she stepped into a gopher hole and injured her knee so badly it required metal screws, bringing an end to her military career on July 6, 1996.

“I felt like a failure,” she recalls. “I saw my dreams just go away. They don’t prepare us to enter civilian life, so it took me a little while to adjust.”

She managed to work as a preschool teacher until she reinjured her knee while jumping over a desk to prevent a fight involving two preschoolers and some blocks. A year ago, she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, and she now lives fully on her monthly disability check.

“I can’t afford to own a car, and if utilities weren’t included in my monthly rent, I don’t know where I would be. Forty dollars a month for fruits and veggies helps,” she says.

“But the produce prescription program is about more than food,” Harris adds. “It is about empowering a person who is hungry, embarrassed, downhearted, giving up hope. To give people a way to do for themselves—that’s empowering.”

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