Food, from farmers

By Randal Smathers

Can eating your veggies make you healthier? There’s an innovative program in Rutland that aims to show it’s a fact.

Each Wednesday, 100 bags of locally grown vegetables are handed out by the Health Care Share program to families and residents of senior and assisted living homes whose doctors have prescribed them.

Heidi Lynch, who runs the program for the Vermont Farmers Food Center on West Street, said the Health Cares, in its second year, is unusual in that most similar plans offer coupons instead of hard, cold cash crops. They get the produce in turn from small and / or beginning farms from around the region: Alchemy Gardens in Shrewsbury, Breezy Meadows Orchard and Nursery in Tinmouth, Caravan Gardens in Cuttingsville and Yoder Farm in Danby, as well as the Smokey House Center in Danby.

Education is a major part of the program. Every week, recipients get a printed sheet with a list of veggies, recipes and health tips, and there’s a demonstration of recipes or samples during distribution at the Food Center where roughly two-thirds of the bags are picked up. The other third are handed out at the Community Health Centers of Rutland County on Stratton Road.

The produce naturally varies by season. The last week of August the bags included tomatoes, melons, squash, zucchini, carrots, onions and kale – almost seven and a half pounds of fresh food. It’s designed to serve a family of four for a full week. If there is any extra, families are welcome to take more. Due to health concerns not everybody can used everything in the bag, so there is some swapping. Corn in particular can be too high in sugar for Type II diabetics, said Lynch, but those conversations are also an important part of the educational process.

From 10 to noon is farm dropoff time. Then there’s two hours of sorting and bagging and a pause before the distribution starts at 3 PM. After an initial rush, things typically slow down, said Lynch, then pick up again around 5:30 as people get off work. By 6 it’s all over. There’s a secondary distribution on Thursday and if any is still unclaimed it is donated to the Turning Point and / or Dream Center. There’s surprisingly little turnover: Some 85 percent of users pick up their shares week in and week out.

The program is 9 weeks into a 12-week run, with monthly “harvest shares” planned for the fall / early winter. Folks wishing to participate should ask their doctor. The year started with five medical offices prescribing. Two more recently signed on. Lynch is signing up doctors and farmers in February and March; April through June is open enrollment.

Lynch is an enthusiastic proponent. A Rutland native, she attended St. Mike’s in Burlington where she was introduced to organic gardening. She was introduced to a program similar to the Health Shares in Richmond, Vt., then talked to Greg Cox, the president of the Farmers Food Center, about it and it took off. Now she discusses “the food system,” and how the program works as a wholesale opportunity for small farms that don’t grow enough to attract a regular bulk purchaser. A vegetarian, she can still discuss the relative merits of local, organic meat versus corporation-farmed soybeans shipped thousands of miles.

And it’s a combined effort. Besides the farmers and Farm Center, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps volunteers and the youth team at Vocational Rehab have been regulars at helping sort and bag the produce, along with help from Grace Congregational and Good Shepherd Lutheran churches, College of St. Joseph and Green Mountain College. The major funder (Lynch calls it “seed money” with a straight face) is the Bowse Health Trust of Rutland Region Medical Center. Rutland Area Farm and Food Link, Vermont Fresh Network, Hunger Free Vermont, UVM’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, and SAGE (Shrewsbury Institute for Agricultural Education) provide the training, nutritional expertise and recipes.

For more information, see http://www.vermontfarmersfoodcenter.org/health_care_share.

This article was originally published in Sam’s Good News; the latest edition is here.

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