The proposal is set out in the National Food Strategy – an independent review commissioned to draw up an ‘overarching strategy for government’ around how the UK’s food system can deliver healthy affordable food to all people while being sustainable and cost-effective.
The report recommends that the government should trial a ‘Community Eatwell’ programme, which would ‘give GPs the option to prescribe fruit and vegetables – along with food-related education and social support – to patients suffering the effects of poor diet or food insecurity’.
It says PCNs should be invited to bid to pilot the proposals – based on programmes elsewhere in the world, including a Washington DC, US project that involves doctors ‘prescribing vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables, along with cooking lessons, nutritional education and guided tours of shops and supermarkets to teach people how to shop cleverly’.
Prescribing fruit and veg
The US scheme saw half of 120 patients who received vouchers between 2012 and 2017 lose weight over the course of a prescription.
PCNs should be able to design their own pilot schemes ‘tailored to local needs and building on existing neighbourhood initiatives’, the National Food Strategy recommends.
It adds that ‘funds could also be used to invest in local infrastructure and facilities that make it easier to eat healthily and affordably, such as community kitchens, fruit and veg street markets, community farms and box schemes, and community cafes’.
If pilots can produce evidence that they have significantly improved participants’ diet and health and cut spending on medication, Community Eatwell projects should be ‘rolled out across all 1,250 PCNs in England’, the report says.
It estimates that going ahead with the scheme would cost £2m a year over three years, but it is not clear what this figure includes – or whether it factors in any administrative costs for general practice.
The proposals for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables sit within a wider set of proposals to reduce consumption of ‘junk food’, tax sugar and salt and use revenue to pay for healthy food for low-income families, reduce diet-related inequality and support reforms to farming and government policy.
GPs responding on social media warned against asking the profession to prescribe fruit and vegetables – with some citing concerns over ‘medicalising healthy eating’.
BIG YES to taxing sugar and salt. ✅ Food industry must do their part. BIG NO to GPs prescribing fruits and vegetables!!! ❌ It medicalises healthy eating, takes away the agency from people and adds pressure when aren’t even coping with medical needs. https://t.co/2QRbYuXfhw
— Selvaseelan Selvarajah (@DrSelvarajah) July 15, 2021
The proposals come as general practice already faces intense workload ahead of a winter predicted to be one of the worst ever faced by the NHS – as relaxation of pandemic restrictions allow cases of COVID-19 to rise and respiratory illnesses return after a year in which they were largely suppressed by social distancing and other measures, and while practices tackle a huge COVID-19 booster campaign alongside seasonal flu vaccinations.
What fresh hell is this?? They now want us to prescribe fruit & veg?! Are they having a laugh?
— Neena Jha (@DrNeenaJha) July 15, 2021