When Kim Hines moved to Augusta in 2005, one of the first things she noticed was a lack of a local food culture. That, and there were no bike trails or curbside recycling.
At first, she utilized the suggestion box of her monthly water bill to advocate for these three positions. Then she realized she needed to pick one and go for it.
Hines picked food.
In the coming years, Hines founded Augusta Locally Grown and GROW Harrisburg. She worked with a wide coalition of groups to bring two organizations that help the local communities connect with their food, respectively. She also brought The Veggie Truck Farmers Market to Harrisburg, which helped bridge the transportation issue in connecting lower income residents to fresh produce, as well as the 100 Raised Beds campaign, among other initiatives.
Then, in 2014, Sara Berney, executive director at Wholesome Wave Georgia, told Hines she was looking for locations to pilot a Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) program that would connect healthcare providers, farmers markets, and families with diet-related illnesses, by providing the access, support, and funding needed to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.
Hines knew Augusta had to be chosen.
“I said, ‘Please pick us, we need this break as a community,’” said Hines. “We need the opportunity to show that we are up to this.”
Fortunately for Hines, several pieces of the puzzle were already in place.
Several students from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University – including David Sellman, a second-year medical student – were involved in The Veggie Truck Farmers Market, where Wholesome Wave Georgia was already doubling the value of SNAP/EBT through their Healthy Food Incentive Program.
Like all students at AU, Sellman was required to volunteer 40 hours’ worth of community service. Having grown up helping his Dad in the garden, the Veggie Truck was a natural fit.
“I felt like I wanted to be doing something in my community and connect with real people, not that my classmates aren’t real people, but we don’t understand the woes of our community as well as we think we do,” said Sellman. “I just feel like I needed to do something and champion a cause that really mattered. I found the Veggie Truck, or maybe it found me, and decided to invest all my extracurricular time into that.”
With the support and energy of those volunteers, Hines made Augusta University her first stop. She came away with a commitment from 12 dietetic interns, each of whom would spend 80 hours at the market, in the community, and supporting FVRx program.
With such enthusiasm and support, Berney didn’t have much choice but to pick Augusta. Since then, as Kim puts it, “Crazy good things have come our way that you wouldn’t even imagine.”
Before the “crazy good” results came a lot of work. First, they needed to recruit farmers. Then they needed to recruit participants and had to find transportation to help people get to the market. Then they had to provide resources for many of the participants to cook, and teach them how to do so. They also had to figure out how to ensure the community owned the process from the bottom up, rather than the top down. Then came all of the tracking and evaluating.
None of it was particularly easy, but the hard work paid off just in time for the summer of 2015.
Over the next six months, medical students provided basic healthcare services to participants and counseled them on chronic disease prevention strategies, under supervision of a clinician. Clinicians then provided all participants with a prescription for fruits and vegetables, which could be redeemed for produce at the Veggie Truck farmers market.
Participants also received monthly cooking education classes at nearby Icebox Ministries and bus transportation to all program activities from Good Neighbor Ministries.
Ultimately, the initial challenges were tough to overcome. After 21 potential participants attended the first information session, 13 signed up to participate. From there, six participants dropped out for various reasons.
But for the seven participants who made it through the program, as well as the farmers who joined the market, the results were phenomenal.
$5,336 worth of prescriptions went directly into farmers pockets, providing 10,821 servings of fruit and vegetables for participants. This increased the servings of fruits and veggies in each participant from 3.9 per day to 5.1.
Those increases meant great things for the blood pressure of each participant, with significant reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as significant increases in participants’ Physical Wellbeing Score.
“It’s fantastic,” Sellman said about the results. “These [indicators] have tangible impact on the patient’s day to day life and overall health. To know that other students that are working just as hard or harder and that our efforts are having real results for real people is really satisfying.”
Though the increase in servings doesn’t seem like much, the significant impact may have come from replacing canned and processed vegetables with fresh ones.
“We do know that processed foods are something we are eating way too much of and it is detrimental to our health,” said Sujit Sharma, MD, founder of Chuice and board member of Georgia Organics. “In that regard it is pretty straight forward.”
Still, Sharma said the data from such a small number of participants isn’t necessarily definitive. However, what is significant is the positive trends and need for further study.
“There is some feasibility here with two pronged outcomes you would want to see: First is the potential for improvement in people’s health, and second, it drives economic interest…by broadening the user base for farmers markets,” said Sharma. “That is immensely important, because that is a population of Americans who could benefit the most from both having access to and consuming more fruits and vegetables.”
That is exactly the plan for 2016. Wholesome Wave Georgia will continue the pilot in Augusta for a second year. They are also bringing the program to Grady Hospital and Good Samaritan Health Center in Atlanta, and are looking at sites in Athens and Savannah for future expansion.
Additionally, the farmers cannot wait for year two.
“We were very surprised how the FVRx Program participants were willing to work hard week after week to improve their health,” said Loretta Adderson, one of the anchor farmers who supports the Veggie Truck. “We in turn sold more produce, which resulted in a 64% increase in sales from June to October over the previous year.”
“The FVRx Program exceeded our expectations, and we would highly recommend it,” Adderson concluded.
In Augusta, there are big plans for year two. Outreach will now be handled by one of the original participants in a full-time role. Another participant is attending culinary school. Another will be the face of the campaign, on posters and fliers throughout the city.
The American Culinary Federation will partner with the program for cooking demos, bringing some of the best chefs to the table.
Augusta University is even considering a new, four-week “Food is Medicine” elective for medical students. The course would teach nutrition-based culinary skills, while serving the local community at the Veggie Truck Farmers Market and providing research for combatting diet-related illness.
In related developments, the kitchen at the St. Luke Methodist Church in Augusta is getting revamped. The goal is to help residents in the neighborhood start healthy food microbusinesses as part of the GROW Harrisburg initiative.
Additionally, the Georgia Food Oasis campaign, managed by Georgia Organics, is beginning to take root. Two projects are already underway, including a partnership with the Augusta Canal Authority to provide a learning space in which soil for gardens can be made from natural materials collected and composted from the canal.
But for all of these incredible achievements, Hines knows it all started with the farmers.
“These farmers signed on as people who knew they were going to come into a community and possibly not make a whole lot of money,” said Hines. “But they were committed to the project nonetheless. It paid off.”
It sure did.