With spring planting right around the corner, local organizations are exploring new ways to promote the value of fresh produce as part of a nutritious diet for improved health.
“For all of us, the more colorful and fresh, the better. Those are two simple rules,” said Barb Duryea, clinical support manager at Conemaugh Diabetes Institute.
She referred to the Department of Agriculture’s My Plate tool that is based on a traditional place setting to illustrate portions of five food groups: vegetables, fruits, grains, proteins and dairy.
“Each time you sit down to eat and look at your plate, divide it in half,” Duryea said. “One half of that should be fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Fresh produce has the highest nutritional value, followed by fresh-frozen produce and then canned produce, Caitlyn Miller said during a program at Highlands Health Clinic, 315 Locust St.
As part of her dietitian internship through Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Miller is developing a virtual grocery store program to help the free clinic’s clients make healthier choices. Part of the video presentation introduces the My Plate tool.
Low-income families who rely on the free clinic often make ends meet with help from food banks and the food stamp program, Miller said. It may lead to the selection of low-cost foods, which are often not as healthy.
“The goal of this program is to give them this virtual shopping tour so they can understand that inexpensive is not the best way to go, in the long term, for your health,” Miller said.
The patient-education tool reflects Highlands Health’s broader mission, executive director Rosalie Danchanko said.
“The mission is not only medical and pharmacy, but also wellness,” Danchanko said. “We would be remiss if we did not provide the tools for patients to remain well.”
The free clinic’s clients aren’t the only ones facing tough food choices. When the Diabetes Institute surveyed patients, leaders discovered food insecurity is a real concern for many.
Two screening questions used during a pilot program at the institute are being introduced across the Conemaugh Health System, Duryea said. Both ask about lack of food in the home.
“When we started our first little pilot within the Diabetes Institute, I was blown away at those who screened positive,” Duryea said. “I didn’t expect it to be that high.”
Conemaugh has taken two actions to address food insecurity: Instead of employee Christmas gifts, the system is donating to area food banks, beginning this month. And the Diabetes Institute created the Eat Right (food) Pharmacy, which is providing shelf-stable food boxes for those who screen positive for food insecurity.
“That will sustain the individual in the short term,” Duryea said. “It is meant to be a short-term bridge for connecting individuals with sustaining support.”
The Eat Right Pharmacy is also developing healthy nutrition support programs for area food banks, beginning with the Moxham Food Pantry, now administered by Goodwill of the Southern Alleghenies, 540 Central Ave.
Food pantry coordinator Richard Lobb said Conemaugh’s dietitians have worked with his organization to offer boxes designed for those with diabetes.
“The next step for us is to look at fresh food from Sandyvale and other community gardens and develop that network,” Lobb said “We know that healthy food is going to be more important than ever.”
The collaborative project is among several developed through an initiative spearheaded by Vision Together 2025 and the 1889 Jefferson Center for Population Health. Backed by federal technical assistance from the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection agency, the project steering committee brought together more than two dozen local organizations, businesses and government agencies involved with food and nutrition. Planning continued for months, including a two-day virtual workshop in October.
Leanna Bird, project manager with the population health center, said more than 40 individuals participated in the 16-hour program.
“Everyone in the community who was involved with food in any way was invited,” Bird said.
The workshop created the outline for a Local Foods, Local Places Community Action Plan that will be rolled out this month with community meetings.
Several other collaborations have already grown out of the Local Foods, Local Places project. Organizations are exploring ways to expand the benefit of a network of community gardens already working with Sandyvale Community Gardens and Conservancy Inc.
Diana Kabo is secretary of the Sandyvale organization and serves as education coordinator. Volunteers are preparing to start hundreds of vegetable plants in the Sandyvale greenhouse. The plants will later be distributed to the community gardens throughout the city.
“We encourage the community to adopt a garden and take care of it,” she said. Fresh produce from the gardens is free for those who harvest it.
The greenhouse also has a hydroponics system that provides produce to food banks, soup kitchens and other agencies.
“We try to encourage people in the community to eat better foods,” Kabo said. “It’s cheaper to buy (fast food) than it is to make a healthy meal for your family.”
The Cambria County Backpack Project is also looking at working with the gardens. The program provides food to hundreds of area children at risk of going hungry during the weekends when they have no access to school-based meals.
Lisa Stofko, project coordinator, said the organization is working with dietitian interns to improve the nutritional quality of the take-home meals. In addition, the program hopes to expand options for participating families.
“We are partnering with other organizations to connect our families with other resources where they can get fresh fruits and vegetables,” Stofko said.
She credited the Local Foods, Local Places program with expanding options for nutrition.
“There really is an effort underway to work more collaboratively so we are connecting people better with additional resources,” Stofko said.