Dr. William Warren had a vision for what an almost empty one-acre plot of land could be.
The Good Samaritan Health Center of Atlanta was relocating to the property, and the two pecan trees on the land held the promise that the soil was fertile enough to sustain more life.
Good Samaritan Health Center provides health care to uninsured, low-income people. When the practice moved to its current Atlanta location, Dr. Warren, the founder and CEO, knew that the new site offered the opportunity to develop a more holistic approach to the health of his patients.
The inspiration to start a farm on the grounds of the health center came from wanting to integrate several goals. Dr. Warren and his colleagues wanted to make a direct tie between their medical practice and healthy, accessible food to emphasize the importance of nutrition on overall health and well-being.
They were also interested in introducing agriculture to an urban area and in making fresh produce available in the “food desert” in which they are located. (A food desert is an area where fresh, nutritious food is generally not available, mostly because there are no stores that stock it.)
“So we were like, ‘OK, how can we tackle all these things?’ ” said Dr. Warren.
The answer was to partner with the Southeastern Horticultural Society and begin a one-acre organic farm. The farm went into full production beginning in July of this year, offering vegetables of all kinds to patients.
“And so what we do is take some of the produce from this garden and use it in teaching demonstrations for our patients so they can learn how to cook food, prepare food and make it tasty, nutritious, as well as healthy,” said Dr. Warren.
“And then we also use some of it in our FoodRx program, a food prescription program for those people who live in this food desert and once a week come and pick up five to 10 pounds of food for themselves and for their family.”
The FoodRx program is specifically aimed at patients of Good Samaritan who are obese or overweight and suffer from major chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Dr. Warren teams up with the resident nutritionist, Jerlyn Jones, to educate patients on how healthy eating can improve or prevent many of their health issues.
Back to the basics
There are similar FoodRx programs throughout the country. And as in many such food prescription initiatives, patients who would benefit from eating more fresh fruits and vegetables are identified by physicians at Good Samaritan, and they are then “prescribed” vouchers that they can present in exchange for produce from the Good Sam garden.
Under the leadership of Josh Fuder, a farmer, everything in the garden is grown organically.
This farm is financially feasible through a program called Community Supported Agriculture. Members of the CSA buy produce in full shares or half-shares directly from the Good Samaritan Farm. Once a week, they receive their share of vegetables, but what they give in return is more than just money.
“You’re not only buying your vegetables for the week, but you’re also giving back to a program that we think is really, really important in the community,” said Katherine Davis, the assistant director of development for Good Samaritan in Atlanta. “Our CSA has a mission behind it, instead of just going and picking up vegetables. [The CSA members] feel like they have a part in getting our neighbors healthy and providing healthy food and nutrition.”
This year, the farm harvested only vegetables, but next year more is expected, including many fruits, herbs, and honey from their beehives. The vegetables grown are split between patients, members of their CSA and cooking demonstrations.
“And so what we do is take some of the produce from this garden and use it in teaching demonstrations for our patients so they can learn how to cook food, prepare food and make it tasty, nutritious, as well as healthy,” said Warren.
“We are targeting the most vulnerable population,” said Aisha Henry, whose job as the health education coordinator is to reach out and involve the people who need their programming at Good Samaritan the most.
Thanks to her work, students from the Boys and Girls Club just a few blocks away visit once a week as a part of their after-school enrichment program. They come to the farm to learn a little bit about farming and to spend time outside. They also take part in cooking demonstrations and learn lessons on nutrition. Senior citizens from the nearby Meals on Wheels Neighborhood Senior Citizens also come by weekly to learn about healthy cooking and eating.
A learning experience
The FoodRx program provides patients with about five to eight pounds of produce each week, at the steeply discounted price of $5 per week. Jones teaches patients how to cook and eat the vegetables, as well as the ins and outs of leading a healthy lifestyle and eating well.
“This is a place where patients can definitely try new vegetables, try new foods, see that they can cook and prepare foods, and it’s healthy, affordable and delicious,” said Jones. “So they definitely see that that is possible without having very expensive equipment. They just need basic cookware. And so, in the end we’re hoping that those techniques that they’re using can carry over to what they’re cooking at home, for their families.”
That’s what the FoodRx program provided for Lolita Anderson, who was a patient in the program’s inaugural year. By keeping a food diary, participating in the cooking demonstrations, learning to practice portion control and gaining access to fresh, healthy food through the FoodRx program, Anderson has managed to lose weight and reduce her high blood pressure with minimal use of medications. She says she looks forward to weaning herself off medicines as her health improves.
Anderson has come to understand what her body does and doesn’t need, and with increased access to a healthy alternative, her new attitude has made all the difference.
“In our community, fried chicken and corn bread is the thing, but it does not have to be the norm,” Anderson said.
As a mother of two, Anderson is now able to better provide healthy meals for her whole family and to live her life to the fullest.
“You feel like a champion,” she said. “You feel disciplined and you can just move on to the next phase of what you’ve got going on in your life, instead of focusing on your weight.”
Jodi Cash is a freelance writer and editor based in Athens, GA. As a co-founder and editor in chief of The Seed & Plate, she has a particular interest in how agriculture and food intersect with health and culture in the South.