Dan Tierney, a farmer at Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra stacks vegetables at the Bangor Farmers Market in this BDN file photo. Credit: Natalie Feulner

Some doctors in the Bangor area will start ordering trips to the farmers market for patients who are suffering from chronic illnesses and cannot afford healthy foods.

Under a new program at the primary care practices of St. Joseph Healthcare, patients who have been diagnosed with a chronic disease such as diabetes and who also are determined to be food insecure will qualify for vouchers so they can purchase fresh produce from four different farmers markets in the Bangor area.

The goal of the program is to educate patients on the nutritional value of fresh produce and help them incorporate it into their diets, according to Jessica Taylor, a nurse who oversees outpatient care management at St. Joseph Healthcare’s primary care offices in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden and Bar Harbor.

If patients meet certain criteria, they will receive vouchers to purchase tomatoes, spinach, apples, blueberries and other fresh produce at the markets through a statewide program, Maine Harvest Bucks, that is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and available to people in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

While the new offering will rely on several existing programs, Taylor said that she doesn’t know of another health care system that’s providing food assistance on what she called a “prescription” basis.

“This is totally new,” she said.

For patients with diabetes in particular, Taylor said, it’s important to consume fresh produce in an unaltered state so that its “vitamins and minerals and fiber can nourish the body and help the immune system.”

It’s also important for patients to minimize their consumption of processed foods, which are generally cheaper but have extra salts and sugars that can exacerbate chronic health problems by contributing to higher blood pressure and other complications.

Under the new program at St. Joseph Healthcare, patients will receive additional vouchers from Maine Harvest Bucks once their health care providers have written them the prescription.

Those vouchers can then be spent on fruits and vegetables at the farmers markets, according to Jimmy DeBiasi, director of programs at the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, an organization helping to implement the new program.

“This is enabling us to give them a form of currency to buy those fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Affordability is a big issue if you already have a lot of decisions to make about getting calories.”

To qualify for the program, patients must be diagnosed with a chronic disease such as diabetes, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They must also be enrolled in SNAP and deemed food insecure based on screening questions from their health care providers, Taylor said.

The size of the credits will depend on how many people are in the recipients’ families.

They will be able to spend their credits at four different farmers markets held throughout the week: Wednesdays on Ohio Street in Bangor, Fridays at the Town Office parking lot in Hampden, Saturdays at the Brewer Auditorium in Brewer and Sundays at Abbot Square in Bangor.