Fresh Farmacy: A prescription for produce

Fresh Farmacy gives out locally grown goodness to at-risk area residents

Spinach, lettuce, broccoli, sugar snap peas and cherries overflowed from brown paper bags on a recent night at Charlottesville’s Free Clinic.

The clinic is one of three in the Charlottesville area that have partnered with the Local Food Hub to provide local produce to families looking to make a healthy change to their diet by participating in the Fresh Farmacy program.

“It’s such a unique and simple concept,” said Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the Local Food Hub. “If you look at these communities, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for them to access fresh and local produce, yet we have an abundance of farms and products here.”

Funded by a state grant to the Thomas Jefferson Health District, the Local Food Hub delivers boxes of local produce twice monthly to families in the program at one of three dropoff sites: the Charlottesville Free Clinic, the Martha Jefferson Starr Hill Clinic and the JABA/Westhaven Nursing Clinic.

“The goal of the program was to target individuals and families who had or were at risk of having certain health-related illness and were ready to make a lifestyle change,” Brown said.

The program began in mid-April with a kickoff celebration at which chefs prepared seasonal, local produce demonstrating a variety of recipes to the participating families.

Families are chosen by health care providers at the three clinics. Many of the individuals are at risk of or already have conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity-related illnesses.

The Fresh Farmacy program is voluntary and is offered at no cost to participants.

“Providing fresh produce at the same time as we’re talking about the importance of getting it in their diet is so effective,” said Barrie Carveth, a certified nurse practitioner at the Charlottesville Free Clinic. “Rather than just saying, ‘you should eat this, that and the other,’ now it’s available and [patients are] getting to take it home and try it.”

At each pickup, families turn in a prescription voucher for a bag of fresh food. Each bag contains fruits and vegetables grown largely within Central Virginia. Proteins, such as grass-fed ground beef or free-range eggs, are occasionally added to the bags to supplement the produce.

“There’s a lack of exposure to different kind of recipes, the knowledge of what to do with fresh vegetables,” Carveth said.

The Fresh Farmacy program tackles the knowledge gap with recipes and cookbooks. The PB&J Fund of Charlottesville has shared recipes with the program and cookbooks have been included in the bags to educate participants about ways to cook the produce at home.

Anwantie Kieler, who moved to Charlottesville from the Caribbean, said she has enjoyed making new dishes for her vegetable-loving 13-year-old son.

“I’m learning fast,” Kieler said. “I made pickled beets with the beets we got last time!”

Others acknowledge the barriers to purchasing local produce but feel that the Fresh Farmacy program is helping them to make healthier choices.

“The fruits here are expensive so sometimes they are out of sight,” said Anda Smith, who grew up in Ghana. “But now … we go to the store and think about [buying fruits and vegetables]. It’s a good program. We hope it continues. We will buy local vegetables now.”

The Local Food Hub acts as the distributor between the farmers and the consumers.

“We sort of play the role of handling all the distribution and logistics,” Brown said. “We also ensure that the product is high value and that there are basic food safety requirements met and that the food remains traceable throughout the entire process.”

The Fresh Farmacy does more than provide healthy food to families — it stimulates the local economy. As of early June, the Local Food Hub had delivered more than 1,400 pounds of produce, 85 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of eggs to participating families. They estimate that nearly $7,500 was kept in the local economy by sourcing the food from area farms.

“It’s really been a win-win for all parties involved,” Brown said.

The last food delivery date is planned for mid-August. The enrollment period for the current Fresh Farmacy program has ended, but the Local Food Hub, the clinics and participating families all said they are hopeful funding will be found to continue the program.

“We’ve been hearing from a lot of other groups that they would love to have this available for their patients or communities,” Brown said. “We’re hopeful that either the state will continue to fund it or someone will want to see this program expand and there will be funding for that it in the future.”