Today, our improved understanding of the importance of eating fresh, local foods, healthy fats, and minimally processed grains has led to a new mantra in health care: Food is medicine. It makes sense – when we fuel our bodies with quality nutrition, we reap the benefits. But we also know that “eating healthy” can seem like a nice idea until it’s time to get something on the table after a long day at the office, picking the kids up from practice, or just not having time to think about it.
Preparing a variety of vegetables and other fresh foods can be particularly difficult for the thousands of Vermonters who live in food-insecure households. But we can work together and help our neighbors by trying new things as an organization.
In 2016, access to healthy food was identified as one of the top 10 priorities impacting the health of the Chittenden County and Grand Isle population. As we work to help our community get and stay as healthy as possible – rather than just treating people when they’re sick – we’re exploring new ways to improve access to fresh, healthy, local food. In our rooftop garden at the main hospital campus, we grow vegetables for our Garden Atrium Cafe, and serve them alongside many local foods. The garden also provides a healing space for patients and visitors. On our Fanny Allen campus, employees and community members take care of raised bed garden plots in the “Learning Garden,” and learn about how to cook the fruits of their labor. We support local farmers by serving as a pickup site for Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm shares, participatng in the growing Health Care Share program, and buying local produce for our cafeterias.
In 2017, we piloted a Vegetable Prescription program in which physicians, dietitians, health coaches and social workers provided $150 of “Veg Rx” coupons to families they identified as food insecure. We worked with local retailers to allow families to redeem the coupons in a location convenient to them.
Looking toward the future, the UVM Medical Center is ramping up our “Culinary Medicine” program. We’ll increase the number of cooking classes offered through Health Source, each led by a Registered Dietitian and a Chef Educator and open to members of the community. Our motto for these classes is “bringing together the joy of cooking and the science of nutrition.”
By funding and facilitating partnerships like these, we can tackle the immediate problem of food insecurity while laying the groundwork for our neighbors and ourselves to build a healthy lifelong relationship with fresh food.
If you have questions or ideas, please email me at AskEileen@UVMHealth.org.
Eileen Whalen, MHA, RN, is a former trauma nurse who now leads The University of Vermont Medical Center. She currently serves as co-chair of the RiseVT board, and co-chair of the Chittenden County Opioid Alliance board.