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McGovern, Pelosi spotlight UMMS student-run Farm-to-Health Center Initiative as a model for the nation

  U.S. Rep. James McGovern and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recognized UMMS students and officials part of the Farm-to-Health Center Initiative on Saturday, June 13, 2015.
  U.S. Rep. James McGovern and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recognized UMMS students and officials part of the Farm-to-Health Center Initiative on Saturday, June 13, 2015.

UMass Medical School students are being recognized for their efforts to identify patients at the Family Health Center of Worcester who don’t regularly have enough to eat and to provide them access to nutritious food through an innovative program they launched called the Farm-to-Health Center Initiative.

“Our community is stronger when every family has access to healthy food and by helping to make that a reality, this project is a model for communities across the country,” U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester, said Saturday, June 13 of the Farm-to-Health Center Initiative, launched last year by UMMS students in collaboration with the Family Health Center of Worcester and Community Harvest Project farm in Grafton.

"It is our moral obligation to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry at night, seniors can rely on their next meal, and struggling families can put food on the table,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, at an event at Community Harvest in recognition of the program.

In Massachusetts, 11.4 percent of households are considered to be food insecure, or having limited access to adequate and safe foods. In Worcester County, 10.9 percent of households are identified as being food insecure; and at the Family Health Center of Worcester up to 67 percent of patients do not have access to fresh fruit and vegetables, primarily because of cost.

Medical students Kathryn Bailey, Elizabeth Rosen and Rachel Erdil started the Farm-to-Health Center Initiative with support from Melanie Gnazzo, MD, assistant professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, as a means to prescribe fresh fruit and vegetables to those in need, and to improve the chances of physicians talking with patients about food inaccessibility. The program offers free vegetables and fruits to hundreds of families throughout the growing season at the Family Health Center of Worcester. In the first year, Community Harvest Project in Grafton, a non-profit farm that grows food for area food banks, donated 7,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Farm-to-Health Center group, enabling it to provide fruit and vegetables to 116 families per week. 

“This resource isn’t going to solve the (food insecurity) problem, but it could help alleviate a small amount,” Bailey said.

Gnazzo said while they know what to eat, lack of access to affordable nutritional food remains a significant challenge for patients at the center. In light of the cost obstacle, some patients have started their own gardens in their yards, having learned about growing the produce during last summer’s distribution.

From a provider perspective, Gnazzo said those at the center have been talking more about food and food issues, making it part of a recurrent dialog to keep it more in providers’ minds. They are also educating patients on the current services available at the center as a means to help alleviate food insecurity.

The program will continue this summer, with produce distribution starting in late July. New to the program will be an educational component created by medical students Cassidy Mellin, Jessica Plager and Blair Robinson. They will coordinate weekly cooking demonstrations at the health center and provide recipe pamphlets to show people how best to utilize the fresh food they are receiving in conjunction with the UMass Extension Nutrition Education Program and the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment. The goal is to help families make healthier choices. By providing food at the health center, they remove the stigma of having to go to a food pantry students said.

“This program has really started a conversation about food insecurity at the health center. Conversations like this need to be incorporated into the medical model, especially with issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, to name a few, that are so intrinsically linked to food and diet,” Bailey said, adding that medical providers are trained to talk with patients about food, but not food insecurity.

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