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Doctor’s Orders: For Better Health, Put Your Hands in the Dirt

Health care workers in this Virginia town are prescribing gardening time.
Sep 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

“Eat more fruits and vegetables,” says every doctor everywhere—the kind of vague advice easily forgotten when passing apples on the way to the end-of-season ice cream sandwiches on sale at the store. So a clinic in Virginia has decided to get specific. Health care providers tear a page from a prescription pad, then walk with their patients out the back door and into what they say is the best kind of produce aisle and pharmacy: the garden row.

Health care, healthy eating, and nutritional subsidy programs commingle in The New River Health District Farmacy Garden in Christiansburg, a new collaboration between the Virginia Department of Health’s New River Health District and Montgomery County’s Virginia Cooperative Extension. The way it works is simple: Volunteers do all of the gardening work, and after an hour pitching in to weed or harvest or seed new crops, the gardeners—patients of the clinic and women who qualify for Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children—go home with a bag of fruits and vegetables.

More than a dozen separate groups in the community gave money, materials, or time to its creation, and it’s the second garden project from the New River Health District.

“The clientele we see have no money, some of them have nothing, and fresh fruits and vegetables are very expensive,” Raschid Ghoorahoo, a nurse practitioner at the clinic, told The Roanoke Times. “Cheap fast and processed foods [exacerbate] their conditions, but they can’t afford the fresh.”

“If they come garden, they get moderate activity,” said Meredith Ledlie Johnson, a health educator at the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Family Nutrition Program, whose job centers around increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables and counteracting food deserts. “It’s everything all in one”—exercise, healthy food, and both ownership of and appreciation for where dinner is coming from.

It’s a clever combination of two movements happening in food and health: the USDA’s emphasis on gardens and farmers markets in communities and schools, and the rise of non-pharmaceutical wellness “prescriptions.” Instead of scribbling out a drug dosage, some doctors are asking patients to incorporate good habits of self-care (like more movement and leafy greens) into their routine, not just as rote advice but as a medical directive—often before their health goes haywire. Doctor’s orders.

“This prescription idea is spreading,” Johnson said, noting green and park prescriptions. “I‘m trying to help people to start thinking about fruits and vegetables as preventative care for themselves.”

WIC gardens in Washington, Michigan, and Kansas have also taken root. In Johnson County, Kan., any of the more than 8,000 WIC recipients in the area can receive unlimited fruits and vegetables when they volunteer in the local garden.

With what is a very restrictive list of approved foods in some states (Virginia, for example, allows peanut butter, but not, inexplicably, organic peanut butter), WIC is a supplemental program that itself can need supplementing. The director of the New River Health District told the Roanoke Times that the limited WIC dollars can’t be used for things like organic produce in her state, and often the allowance doesn’t go far with conventionally grown fruits and vegetables either. In Virginia, the average monthly benefit per person was $31.21 last year. Gardens can close the gap where WIC falls short. The Virginia garden has harvested 320 pounds of food to date, using only organic methods.

Johnson points out the feeling of “self-sufficiency” gardening provides, as well as a return to food traditions people often already know but have lost touch with. “What I’ve found with gardening overall is that it really taps into people’s memories of a healthier lifestyle—having a garden with their grandmother, cooking vegetables with their mother,” she said. “They talk about the recipes they had for these things growing up and realize, ‘I don’t do that anymore,’ ‘I don’t do this with my kid.’ We’re tapping into that skipped-over generation.”