A Prescription for Produce? 

It’s a well-known fact that the overall health of our country could use some help. As our society continues to urbanize and modernize, we get further away from the farm both geographically and intuitively. The less we know about the foods that come from the Earth, at least before they’re processed beyond recognition, the less we understand how these foods can heal us and keep us healthy. CSA programs, or community-supported agriculture, have grown in popularity in recent years as a concerted effort to reconnect urban and suburban dwellers with farms. These programs usually consist of a weekly box of produce provided to participants, who then take that beautiful, colorful bounty home to prepare fresh and healthy food for the upcoming week.

A question was raised by health professionals and community activists in light of this concept. How do we get this nutritionally valuable food into the hands of people without the means to afford the food, or even a safe way to travel and pick up the food? What about those who would benefit greatly from incorporating fresh foods into their diet, but do not have the knowledge required to prepare meals with the food? Enter the Telligen Grant, awarded to the Fresh and Local RX program, the brainchild of representatives from Rush Copley Medical Center, Kane County, and Dream Distributors.

The process of getting this program to fruition began with an email in 2016. One grant was applied for and was not awarded. Like the greatest success stories, this did not get in the way of the dream. Reevaluation was done, another grant was applied for, and this one was obtained. The Kane County Fresh and Local RX would be happening.

How does the Fresh and Local RX program work? Potential participants were identified based on having one or more risk factors for a chronic disease, actually having a chronic disease, or having trouble accessing healthy food, either due to transportation or financial barriers. A majority of those enrolled felt limited by budget when grocery shopping and also rated their diet as fair to poor at the beginning of the program.

Once participants were officially enrolled, they selected one of three session options to attend. These sessions included a cooking demonstration with a registered dietitian, complete with nutrition counseling and capped off with the delivery of their bimonthly produce package. During the cooking demonstration, the Registered Dietitian would go over what each item in the produce package was and would demonstrate how to properly prepare it for the selected recipe. The recipes would generally utilize multiple produce items from the week’s package and participants would receive any spices, oils or vinegars needed to reproduce the recipe at home. As the demonstration progresses, the Registered Dietitian would inform the participants about the nutrients available in the various produce items, which is critical to the program. If a doctor informs a patient more Vitamin A is needed in their diet, but that patient is unsure of which foods contain Vitamin A, it will be hard to adhere to the doctor’s requests. This program provides patients with that important information.

The program has been largely popular with the participants who attended the weekly sessions. During the final week of the program, you could hear participants across the board discussing weight loss and culinary triumphs as a result of this program. Another universal sentiment among participants was the desire to be locked in for next year’s program, which truly is the best testimonial.

In order to distribute farm-fresh produce, the program needed to have farmers on board. Dream HUB was selected as the Kane County Food Hub operator in 2017 and therefore had the necessary connections to local farmers. Many of the participating farms were small and some were even new, so training was needed. Fourteen farmers in total were trained in a Wholesale Readiness course and took part in guided, consumer-oriented crop planning to prepare for the season, which provided them with valuable skills and certifications that will help them grow and expand their businesses while serving as a vital part of the Fresh and Local RX Program. This coursework was organized and facilitated by Family Farmed, a non-profit organization that works with farmers to support their vision of “Good Food on Every Table”. The classes met at Dream Hall, a space operated by Dream HUB.

At a time when medical professionals are starting to look for natural ways to promote healthy living, an idea like the Fresh and Local RX is a perfect addition to that landscape. The teams at Rush Copley Medical Center, Kane County, and Dream Distributors have worked hard and the results are very promising. Next year will hopefully see an expansion of this project, serving more community members over a larger geographic area.