Featured, Local News

‘Food as medicine’: Rutland’s Farmacy Project

By Julia Purdy

RUTLAND—Now entering its fourth year, the Rutland County Farmacy Project opened Wednesday, July 11, at both the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) on West St. and at the Community Health Center of the Rutland Region (CHCRR) on Stratton Road.

Known previously as VFFC’s Health Care Share (HCS), the new name, “Farmacy,” reflects the focus on “food as medicine,” which is prescribed by participating healthcare providers to supplement medical treatment for chronic diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure. To participate a member must be recommended by a healthcare provider.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, a sign-in desk was ready at the VFFC building (also home to the winter farmers’ market). Members must re-register each year so membership lists can be updated. Volunteers are on hand to explain the program to first-timers and answer questions. The volunteers are veterans of the program and contribute their time in return for free produce.

Wallace, 60, grew up on a hill farm in Shrewsbury and spoke to the value of fresh food and hard work.
Another volunteer, Tanya, is a vegetarian. “To eat healthy today in today’s economy is not the easiest thing to do,” she said, “so this program provides other avenues for people who would not normally be able to afford to buy fruits and vegetables.”

A signboard lists this season’s participating farms: the Squier Family Farm, Alchemy, Caravan, and Yoder. “We prepay them to grow food, so it gives them a little economic stability,” said Greg Cox, president of the VFFC. “We will be getting more farms as we add more members.”

Rutland-born Scott Courcelle grows crops at three locations, Boardman Hill, West Rutland and Shrewsbury. His Alchemy Gardens supplies lettuce greens, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, tomatoes and melons. Later Alchemy and other farms will supply carrots, potatoes and squashes. Courcelle employs two full-time workers.

This year, the program has space for 150 members. On Wednesday, over 100 had signed up.

At the Farmacy tent outside the CHCRR, Galen Miller and Grace Davy, who teaches Everyday Chef at the food center, were assisting a steady trickle of customers. They had 49 tote bags left and expected they would distribute them all by the end of the day.

Donna waited for The Bus outside the CHCRR on Stratton Road, with her tote bag of produce beside her. She lives in a subsidized apartment complex nearby. This is her first time in the program. “I went right in here and they signed me up,” she said.

Barbara lives in Rutland and signed up at the Diabetes Center near the hospital. It’s also her first year. “I think it’s great,” she said. “I found a great recipe for grilled zucchini spears and Parmesan cheese, really good.”

Her husband, Roger, chimed in. “I never would have paired blueberries and cucumbers together. We just had a big salad for lunch, cucumbers and lettuce, I had radishes, tomatoes, throw blueberries in, that sounds good too.”

Inside the health center, Practice Leader Joan Grimes said the clinic’s involvement began with one of its physicians, Dr. Kingsbauer. “This was very important to him,” Grimes said. When Dr. Kingsbauer moved out of state, Dr. Wendy Morgan gladly took over the Farmacy program.

Providers write a prescription for vegetables for patients who might not otherwise afford market prices, and who they know will actually use the benefit. “One of the nice things about the Farmacy is they give you recipes and teach you how to cook,” she said. “They give samples that actually taste good,” she added.

Back at the VFFC, Kate Bilinski described her work as an educator with UVM Extension’s Expanded Food & Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). She partners with the Farmacy to educate families and caregivers in nutrition, food storage and food preparation.

“I come each year on the first day to showcase one of the EFNEP recipes.” Bilinski also teaches to community groups for adults, in the school system and in clients’ own kitchens.

More information is at uvm.edu/extension, click on EFNEP.

More than just food distribution, Farmacy has become a major tool for community-building, a good way for people to get to know each other. Some romances have even blossomed through the program, said Heidi Lynch, native Rutlander and director of the Farmacy Project. “There’s a lot of great activity happening around increasing access to fruits and vegetables and the food system,” she said. Organizers are already seeing changes in eating habits that cut back on sugar and include more raw, whole foods, and kids are motivated to eat their veggies with flavorful recipes.

The Farmacy Project also puts out a newsletter. In addition to a calendar of events, reminders and cooking tips, this year a new project is being launched, Root Words, soliciting personal stories from members. Root Words asks people “as Vermonters” to think about their relationship to the land through forebears who farmed, traditions, memories — “the ordinary stuff of life rooted in Vermont.”

Vermont is part of a national effort to promote preventive wellness, said Lynch. Grants and donations support the movement now, she said, but insurance policies still don’t recognize it as a billable service. Proponents hope that food programs will eventually be viewed as promoting wellness in the way that some policies reward healthy activities and gym memberships.

“There’s precedent for those systems to expand into the general public. Everybody’s moving in that direction,” she said.

Photo by Julia Purdy
Farmacy volunteers Frank Wallace, Delores Riley and Dolly Cole await the first participants of the 2018 season. Grocery tote bags, donated by Price Chopper, contain salad greens, lettuce, chard, cucumbers, and snap peas.

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