With an eye toward improving population health and combating the obesity epidemic, clinicians at Indiana University Health are bringing an oasis to food deserts in Indianapolis.
"We wanted to increase access to affordable fruits and vegetables in low-income populations because they face challenges to acquiring healthy foods doctors prescribe to patients," says Lisa Cole, R.N., creator of Garden on the Go and IUH's Indianapolis Community Outreach manager. "We wanted to be part of the solution and provide access in those neighborhoods."
Bringing in healthy food meant partnering with a Green B.E.A.N. Delivery, a food delivery service committed to providing fresh, local, organic produce. Since its launch last year, GOTG has grown to 16 weekly stops in community centers, libraries, neighborhood health centers and senior centers where workers select produce for customers with mobility issues, Cole says.
So far, the initiative has been successful. As of late June, GOTG had processed 15,700 transactions with roughly 400 repeat customers. Each $7 purchase, for which customers can use cash, credit, debit or food stamps, includes 1 pound each of bananas, green beans and tomatoes, 3 pounds of potatoes, and a large bunch of greens.
"The food smells and looks good. The bunches of greens are big. The peppers aren't shriveled," Cole says. "It's an important message for the community — they deserve the same quality food you and I purchase. It gives them a better value for their dollar."
Having easy access to fresh foods has positively impacted community members. For example, after Sandra Bailey began shopping with GOTG last year, her blood sugar levels dropped, making her diabetes more manageable. In addition, as an employee of the Indianapolis Housing Agency, which hosts several GOTG stops, she's seen similar effects on low-income groups.
IUH researchers recruited 120 shoppers and are tracking their blood sugar, blood pressure, body mass index and food patterns for six months. Twenty of the shoppers will receive specific food-choice guidance from dietitians.
The program also fits with the nonprofit health system's effort to provide a community benefit, Cole says. Clinicians can monitor what people are buying and provide guidance for improving their health status.
Cole says hospitals can learn from IUH's experience. Working with for-profit produce companies and using operational dollars makes it easier for initiatives to benefit communities. It's also important to determine how communities prefer to access produce, such as in trucks or community buildings, to ensure greatest participation.