Food prices are rising again. The complexities of our modern world place pressures on farmers and food systems: the war in Ukraine provoked global fertilizer shortages. Record-level climate events like Hurricane Ian ruined crop yields. COVID-19 triggered supply chain issues. These pressures inflate — and will continue to inflate — food prices, leaving millions of Americans without access to the fresh produce that supports health and reduces the risk of developing obesity and diabetes. 

The 2022 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health was the first to center the “Food is Medicine” initiative, an approach to ending chronic diseases by improving access to health and promoting produce. As a nutritionist and public health professional, I find this promising. There are life-changing treatments available for diabetes, but nothing can compare with the ease of preventing the disease. But what excites me are the programs working at the community level.

Rafael Pérez-Escamilla, a professor of public health at the School of Public Health, was awarded a $400,000 grant from the American Heart Association. He will be researching how community health workers can support produce-prescription programs to improve the health of Hispanic people in Hartford with type 2 diabetes. In communities where there is no easy access to fresh produce or limited access to registered dietitians, it’s difficult for patients with diabetes to consume a healthy, diverse diet that they like and can afford. 

But increasing access to healthy foods, including fresh produce, is not enough. Patients with type 2 diabetes who live in communities with constrained food resources and limited access to nutritional education may require coaching on why fruits and vegetables are safeguards of health, and how to prepare them.

We are beginning to see this in Hartford. Pérez-Escamilla is exploring how community health workers, or CHWs, can address these gaps. Trained as qualified nutrition educators, they work with these communities on practical and healthy ways to cook vegetables with a variety of colors that are crucial for blood sugar control and cancer prevention. These CHWs can go into people’s homes, assess their pantries, and take them to their local grocery stores to find healthier food options. And, according to Pérez-Escamilla, the CHWs are “very practical.” They assist people in learning how to navigate programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and how to “activate debit cards for produce to then redeem them at grocery stores.” These workers are essential to effectively scaling up produce prescription programs in the United States, which are rapidly disseminating nationwide following the launch of the “Food is Medicine” initiative. 

Feeding the entire nation isn’t a simple fix. The type of food matters. If produce isn’t culturally relevant, communities are less likely to purchase it, opting instead for cheap and easily available ultra-processed foods that appeal through exploitative marketing strategies. On his hopes for the program, Pérez-Escamilla’s dream is two-fold: he hopes that these produce programs will grow to help more communities of color, and he seeks to support farmers, restaurant and supermarket owners of color “receive funding to fulfill the demand for culturally desired produce.” 

We need a complete transformation of our unhealthy food systems. As produce prescription programs are being rolled out and CHWs are empowering communities in practical ways, the systems that produce and regulate the prices of our food need to be re-engineered. We can work to empower farmers with climate adaptation strategies, subsidize fresh and culturally diverse produce, tax sugar beverages and hold ultra-processed food companies accountable for misleading marketing. 

There’s so much left to do. But I’m inspired by Pérez-Escamilla’s work in Hartford. And I hope that what is happening in Harford will happen everywhere. 

TARINI GUPTA is a nutritionist and a master’s candidate at the School of Public Health. Her research specializes in the social determinants of malnutrition and food insecurity. Contact her at