Even in rural areas with vast natural resources like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), many individuals and families struggle to put fresh fruits and vegetables on their tables. A short growing season limits when local produce is available. For some, proximity to produce is the barrier; the nearest market might be 30 miles away.

Furthermore, many residents cannot afford enough food—much less local, healthy foods—to nourish themselves and their family. As many as one in five Upper Peninsula residents face food insecurity. And according to the most recent UP community health needs assessment, 70% of UP adults are concerned about year-round access to affordable healthy foods.

A collaborative effort is underway to address these problems through a Food As Medicine (FAM) program for the entire UP. Public Policy Associates (PPA) has been a partner in the development of the initiative. After conducting a feasibility study, PPA brought together 54 organizations to plan the pilot project. PPA will be the evaluator for the initiative and PPA’s Dr. Nancy McCrohan will sit on the Advisory Committee.

Healthy food is an essential component of good health. People who don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables are at greater risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases.

“As a large region rich in natural resources, there may be an assumption that most residents grow a garden in their back yard and have access to an abundance of fresh produce. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, this is often not the case and in fact, there are a number of areas considered “food deserts” throughout the region,” said Tammy Rosa, Nutrition Program Manager with the Upper Peninsula Commission for Area Progress and lead administrator of the UP FAM program. “This is a collaborative project with partners in all three regions of the Upper Peninsula, who will share best practices, information, and resources and work to improve the food security of low-income residents while building a stronger regional food system.”

The cross-sector initiative brings together health and social service providers, nutrition experts, farmers and producers, and area markets. When providers identify people in need of the program, they make referrals. Once enrolled, clients get vouchers to buy locally produced food at area markets as well as access to nutrition education.

The program provides economic benefits to farmers and area markets. There is also an infrastructure component of the initiative to enable local producers to increase their cold food storage capacity to essentially extend their growing season.

While research has shown that Food As Medicine programs are effective in improving health while producing health care savings in urban settings, little research is available for its effectiveness in rural areas. PPA’s evaluation will extend the body of knowledge and may help other rural areas replicate the program.

The UP FAM pilot project is being funded by the Superior Health Foundation. The planning for the project was funded by the Michigan Health Endowment Foundation and conducted in partnership with Feeding America West Michigan.