Newswise — The Harris County Hospital District has won the 2012 Gage Award for Improving Population Health for its Healthy Harvest, a program that coordinates farmers markets in healthcare centers to encourage patients to eat more fruits and vegetables. The award was given June 21 by the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems (NAPH) during its annual national conference in San Francisco.

Healthy Harvest, a collaboration of the Harris County Hospital District — Houston’s large public healthcare system — and Veggie Pals, Inc. — a private-sector produce distribution company — offers patients dollar-store prices for fresh fruits and vegetables. Many patients of the hospital district live in food deserts characterized as areas of the community with few or no grocery stores.

Dr. Ann Smith Barnes, medical director, Weight Management Services and Disease Prevention, Harris County Hospital District, and assistant professor, Medicine Department, Baylor College of Medicine, spearheaded Healthy Harvest after noting the economic and transportation challenges facing patients to buy fresh produce.

“The recognition for this program is wonderful, but the real success is the spotlight it shines on the lack of nutrient-rich foods in some of our communities and a call to action by public and private efforts. If other organizations mobilized their resources, we collectively could do something about the obesity crisis facing our nation,” Barnes says.

Since beginning Healthy Harvest in November 2011, the program has farmers markets once a week in 11 Harris County Hospital District health centers. The program sells an average of 30 tons of produce a month.

“The tremendous work of Dr. Barnes and our community health centers are to be commended. The goals of Healthy Harvest and many of the programs at the Harris County Hospital District fall right in line with the goals of our healthcare system to provide primary care, wellness, prevention and disease management to improve the public’s health,” says David S. Lopez, president and CEO, Harris County Hospital District.

The effects of obesity and its growing trend are already seen in healthcare. Obesity Reviews estimates the problem costs healthcare providers an additional $266 to treat an overweight person and $1,723 to treat an obese person.

At the Harris County Hospital District alone, it’s estimated that the cost to provide medical care for overweight patients is 40 percent more than for patients within a healthy weight range, and the prescription costs for these patients are 80 percent greater. Annually, that translates to about $109 million in additional cost.

“By addressing nutrition deficiency in patient populations, Harris County is helping to stem a major health care crisis that contributes to numerous chronic diseases. “Healthy Harvest offers a clear example of innovation by the safety net and the value NAPH members have as leaders and mentors for the broader health care industry,” says Dr. Bruce Siegel, president and CEO, NAPH.

The NAPH Gage Awards Program is named after National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems founder and safety net advocate Larry S. Gage. The awards honor and share the outstanding work of member institutions. Winners are recognized for innovative ideas that improve community health and save money, and can be replicated by other healthcare organizations across the country.