Pilot Program Aims to Help People with Poorly Controlled Diabetes by Distributing Free “Farmacy” Goods

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Everyone knows fresh produce can be expensive, and it’s particularly difficult to buy for people who depend on food stamps or other aid systems to supply them with food. But as the diabetes epidemic grows, it’s becoming more and more apparent that we need to find a way to help people get their hands on fresh fruits and vegetables to stay healthy and keep their blood sugar under control.

With the help of a $175,000 grant from Adirondack Health Institute, Hudson Headwaters Health Network is working on making it easier for people with diabetes to eat healthier. Their new pilot program, Food Farmacy, which will run through the end of the year and hopefully continue on into the future if more funding can be procured, offers people with “uncontrolled” diabetes free boxes of fresh produce to help them integrate healthy choices into their diets.

“Uncontrolled” diabetes occurs when a person’s blood glucose levels are consistently above 9 despite all efforts to lower it, such as diet changes, medications, and exercise. For those who fall into this category, the new program is expected to help lower their blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and body mass index over time.

Each patient involved in the program picks up a box of fresh produce at their regular visit to their dietician every other week. The dietician “prescribes” a healthy eating routine, and the produce is intended to be a starter-kit for healthy cooking in the days to come.

An organization called Comfort Food Community runs a food pantry in Greenwich to reduce food insecurity and curates the boxes of produce for diabetic patients. They include things like apples, oranges, asparagus, lettuce, avocado, and more.

Often, patients will also find a “challenge” item in their box—like a rutabaga or a daikon radish—to encourage them to try new healthy foods and recipes. Amelia Gelnett, community health coordinator for Comfort Food Community reports that all the patients currently in the Food Farmacy program reported trying the rutabaga that was included in their box. Most didn’t like it, but Gelnett is encouraged by the participants’ willingness to trying new things. An attitude of openness to new foods may lead participants to find healthy foods they do enjoy down the road.

Gelnett says the rutabaga can be cubed and roasted or pureed and added to chipotle soup. The daikon radish, which was included in a different box, can be grated into soup or shredded and combined with cornmeal, egg, and spices to form patties.

Recipes are included in the program, and all of them avoid starches, control sugars (without completely eliminating them), and use only whole-wheat carbs. For low-income participants and those who lack the proper kitchen tools for preparing their produce, the program also provides them with tools or helps them locate thrift stores where they can buy them. Care managers also work on special recipes for those who have limited cooking appliances.

“If someone doesn’t have a stove, we work on recipes for the microwave,’ says Jessica Fraser, director of care management. “If you don’t have that, it pulls into a bigger conversation about barriers to care management.”

The program is already helping people like 62-year-old Rosemarie make the changes they need to make for a healthy lifestyle. Rosemarie recently got her third cancer diagnosis (she’s in remission for the time being) and is now committed to recreating her life in a new way. She even asked her son to rent her a bike to ride for Mother’s Day instead of taking her out to eat. And she’s grateful that she’ll now be able to get fresh fruits and vegetables, even though she’s living on food stamps.

“I want to get away from food. I don’t want to celebrate food,” says Rosemarie. “I don’t want to make food the center. I’m the center.” She hopes to lower her cholesterol and A1C so she can continue to be there for her grandkids.

Above all, the program is aboutysvercoming whatever barriers are currently getting in the way of a healthy lifestyle for participants. “We spend a lot of time telling people what they can’t eat,’ Fraser said. “Now we can tell them what they can eat and we can prescribe it and people will help make this appealing for you.”

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Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?
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