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Choosing to make a difference

Volunteers for Choose Health handed out fresh produce to families enrolled in the program.1 / 3
Bags of fresh produce awaited families enrolled in the Choose Health program at Lakewood Health System in Staples. Lakewood partners with Todd County and Sprout to provide health supplements to families with low income and food insecurities.2 / 3
volunteers organized bags to be distributed at the Choose Health booth at the Farmers’ market at Lakewood Health System in Staples. 3 / 3

STAPLES - Every Thursday, people come from all over Todd County to visit the Farmers Market at Lakewood Health System in Staples. Tables and trucks full of fresh produce from dozens of area farms make their way from the hands of the farmer into the hands of eager consumers.

This summer a new booth has made an appearance. In front of it sits a table filled with orange bags full of fresh produce, picked with a special purpose.

"Some of them have never prepared fresh vegetables before," said Lakewood Health System dietician Kelly Coughlin, talking about participants in Lakewood's Chose Health program.

"It's our goal to change that."

Choose Health is a brand new program started with the help of Lakewood Health System, Todd County Health and Human Services, Public Health office, and Sprout MN that makes fresh produce available to families affected by hunger or food insecurities.

Coughlin said the idea developed after Lakewood received a grant from Hunger Free Minnesota. The organization wanted to see Lakewood start a food dispensary modeled after a similar program at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

Katherine Mackendanz, Community Planning Unit Manager at Todd County Health and Human Services, said Hunger Free Minnesota was interested in partnering with health care providers to better distribute fresh foods.

Coughlin pointed out that hunger programs tend to focus on getting calories and food into people, but don't typically take into account the quality of food distributed.

"It's not just about getting food for hunger relief; it's about getting healthy food to people," Coughlin said.

At HCMC, primary care physicians refer patients who that are affected by hunger or food insecurity to the dispensary, much like they prescribe medicine. Patients receive a "prescription" for a healthier diet and pick up their list of groceries at the dispensary.

"(Hunger Free Minnesota) had worked with the food banks and food shelves, but this was different," Mackendanz said. "It worked really well at HCMC - they wanted to know how it would work in a rural area."

Coughlin said the idea has been in the works since January.

With the help of Arlene Jones who owns and operates The Farm on St. Mathias and manages SPROUT food hub, Coughlin said the idea developed beyond a food dispensary to a program more like a community supported agriculture (CSA) model.

"There's nothing like this anywhere else," Coughlin said.

Jones said part of the excitement of the program is for participants to know where their food comes from.

"They meet the farmers growing their food," she said. "And the farmers are so proud to be part of the program."

According to Jones, more than 40 area farmers contribute to Choose Health.

Mackendanz said the program has created an important partnership between Lakewood, Todd County, SPROUTS, Region Five Development Commission and the city of Staples.

"It's a really nice partnership of key players in the area saying, 'How can we make this successful?'" Mackendanz said.

Participants find their way to Choose Health through routine appointments with the primary care providers.

Doctors at Lakewood screen patients with questions regarding their food security, asking whether patients felt they had enough food or have ever been concerned they might run out of food. For patients with concerns about hunger, providers recommend the Choose Health program.

So far 50 families have been selected.

Coughlin said the shares in the program come at no cost to participants - the cost is largely covered by the grant and buy-in from Lakewood employees and employees from National Joint Powers Alliance in Staples.

Every other week from June until October, participants will pick up their shares, which include a brief cooking demonstration with foods in their share.

"They're getting some the skills necessary to use the food they receive," Mackendanz said. "That's so important."

The bi-weekly shares include whatever is available on the market - rhubarb, cucumbers, asparagus, eggs and herbs.

"They're getting the best and freshest available," Jones said.

Through SPROUT food hub, Jones works with area producers to meet fresh produce demand for wholesale and institutional use.

Participants also receive kitchen basics such as knives, cutting boards, measuring cups - things that will make it easier and more likely for them to experiment with fresh foods.

Mackendanz said the program kicked off in mid-June and the first week was a huge success. "The families were so excited," she said.

Coughlin said she was moved by seeing families pick up healthy foods and showing such excitement over receiving them.

"It was a dietician's dream," she said. "They're really trying."

For many participants, overcoming the fear of using fresh foods and foods they are not familiar with can be a barrier.

"They just don't know what to expect," Coughlin said, adding that the goal is to eventually encourage participants to grow their own food.

"This program could continue to have many arms," she said.

Coughlin said what makes Choose Health different from other food programs is the data. Primary care providers will track biometrics of all participants including weight, height, BMI and screening for diabetes. "The ultimate goal is obesity prevention," Coughlin said. "That starts with access to fresh, healthy food."

Mackendanz said working with parents is crucial to preventing obesity among children. "You can work with schools and directly with the kids but, ultimately, it's the parents who put food on the table."

While data may not come back in drastic changes in numbers on the scale or dramatic drop in BMI, Coughlin is confident there will be notable impact.

"What we will have is some solid answers on behavior change," Coughlin said, noting participants will develop the ability and confidence to prepare healthy foods. "Once you start, it's hard to stop."