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Local Produce Bags Offer a Prescription for Better Health

July 13, 2022
Karin Endy
Working with the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy, a local health center distributes fresh fruits and vegetables to patients

As the popularity of locally-sourced food grows, the medical providers at Community Clinic in Northwest Arkansas are taking the farm-to-table trend one step further − right to the exam table.

Through a partnership with the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy, doctors and nurses are helping patients develop healthier habits, and treating chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity, through the weekly distribution of low-cost fresh fruits and vegetables, right at the doctor’s office.

The Walton Family Foundation is supporting this partnership as part of its Northwest Arkansas Food Systems initiative, helping the region become a national model for locally grown food.

Jazmin Rivas, special programs coordinator with Community Clinic, helps colleagues Jacquelin Davila and
Ailing Gideon prepare to distribute produce bags for clinic patients.

A federally-qualified health center, Community Clinic accepts all insurance and offers deeply discounted services to uninsured populations. At their five main health centers throughout Washington and Benton Counties, providers offer everything from prenatal and dental care to integrated behavioral health and physical therapy.

In harder to access areas of the region, they have established 10 school-based health centers that serve as points of care for students, their families and the community at large.

As Northwest Arkansas continues to grow more diverse, so must its health care. A little over 50% of Community Clinic patients prefer to receive care in a language other than English.

While the majority of their patients are Hispanic, they also serve the region’s large Marshallese community. They are the primary medical care facility for CANOPY NWA, a group that serves refugees from all over the world.

“We are available to everyone and anyone that needs us,” says Community Clinic COO Amanda Echegoyen. “A lot of our families initially believe they can’t afford care, or that they won’t be able to communicate effectively with our medical staff. These are multigenerational families with a wide variety of healthcare needs. Many work long hours. For these patients, it’s a question of access, and Community Clinic makes it convenient to seek care for the whole family.”

Community Clinic Northwest Arkansas has partnered with the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy to distribute low-cost fresh fruits and vegetables to provide better food and nutrition options for patients at risk.

Among the U.S. population, chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and obesity are widespread, leading not only to a lower quality of life but lowered life expectancy. In underserved populations that lack equitable access to high-quality, healthcare and nutritious food, these illnesses have reached epidemic levels.

For Amanda, it isn’t so much a question of food security, but nutrition security.

“Currently in our neighborhood, the convenience store across the street is the only convenient access to food our neighbors have, and I can tell you, there isn’t a single veggie in there,” she says.

Jazmin Rivas packs a cooler full of produce bags prepared by the Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy.

Many of her patients don’t have a reliable way to travel to a local supermarket, and if they do, the cost is simply too high. “Good nutrition is the foundation for good health, and food can be medicine when it comes to many of the chronic diseases that impact our communities.”

Amanda says the partnership with the Food Conservancy is giving her medical providers an opportunity to go beyond the standard recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables. By having the produce in-house, they can “prescribe” a healthier diet on the spot, and at a heavy discount.

The Northwest Arkansas Food Conservancy's produce bags provide a healthy options for many underserved families who live in food deserts that lack a full-service grocery store.

The program began as a pilot in the summer of 2021 with around 45 patients enrolled. Since then, Community Clinic has expanded its produce distribution to around 200 bags a week at eight locations across the region, and with extended pick-up hours.

When patients pick up, Community Clinic staff uses the opportunity for education and enrollment, helping families sign up for low-income food benefits like SNAP, fielding questions and giving recipe advice.

Employees at Tyson Foods help the Community Clinic's Jazmin Rivas distribute produce bags.

With the pilot, Amanda says they have learned a lot about what patients like and don’t like. Working with Marshallese and Hispanic staff members of both the Food Conservancy and Community Clinic, they are adjusting the produce mix of the bags to account for the food traditions and preferences of local communities.

For Food Conservancy Executive Director Diana Endicott, the program’s value goes beyond the health benefits. “We have a lot of small growers here in Northwest Arkansas, and partnerships like the one with Community Clinic are helping to build their capacity and diversify their sales. Our farmers love that they can showcase their food to new audiences while helping heal disease.”

Community Clinic distributes the produce bags every week at eight clinic locations throughout Northwest Arkansas. Pictured are clinic staff Carolina Velasco and Jazmin Rivas.

Diana also believes there is a kinship between the groups serving and being served. “There is a deep agricultural heritage within many of these diverse populations. They understand and appreciate the work that goes into growing high-quality food, and they want to support it.”

Back at Community Clinic, Amanda says the benefits are extending into the home. “Through these boxes, families are learning to cook and eat more fruits and vegetables together. As we continue to seek the best health outcomes for our patients, local fruits and vegetables have the potential to help us build a new generation of nutrition security.”

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