Wellness Corner

Levell Williams

Using Fruits and Veggies to Take Aim at Chronic Illness

By Levell Williams

Victoria Okyere and David Juros survey the foods ready for donation to the Salvation Army in Meriden.  

Photo by Levell Williams

Some of the most powerful medicine doesn’t come in a bottle, it comes on a plate.

That’s why Hartford HealthCare opened a grocery store in Hartford Hospital’s Brownstone Building. The shelves are stocked with lean meats, fresh fish and colorful produce such as oranges and pineapples, squash and Brussels sprouts, and farm-raised eggs. This store, however, does not take cash, credit cards or coupons. Shoppers need only bring a prescription from their doctors.

The “store” is part of Food Is Medicine, a national movement, backed by research, focused on fulfilling the needs of people with medically prescribed diets. Hartford HealthCare’s program is called Food4Health and serves eligible patients with chronic illness and pregnant women. In addition to healthy food, shoppers are given recipes and information about healthy meal preparation.

Jessica Soto’s doctor gave her a prescription after she suffered a major heart attack at age 36. In an interview on National Public Radio’s show “Where We Live,” she said the program helps her provide for her two sons as she has been recovering from her resulting advanced heart failure.

“As much as 30 percent of Hartford County is food insecure,” said David Fichandler, senior director of clinical operations at Hartford Hospital, who started the program with David Juros, Food Is Medicine consultant, and Greg Jones, vice president for community health and engagement.

The program partners with local organizations — including Food Share, My Local Chef and CTown — to stock the healthy food store, which is designed to look more like a doctor’s office.

More than a colorful spread, the fruits and veggies on display can be life-changing for patients living with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension or obesity. These diseases can often be worsened by the inability to find or afford healthy food near home.

Fortunately, not everything has to change with a new diet. Food4Health offers culturally distinct ingredients, such as plantains, tomatillos and malanga, that may be familiar to the region’s large Latino population.

Soto was pleased with the quality and selection of ingredients she received from the Food4Health Clinic.

“My boys and I are loving it,” she said. Additionally, Food4Health provides multilingual assistance through a live translation service and most flyers are in Spanish and English.

Future plans include expanding to serve more patients and opening the program to Hartford HealthCare colleagues who may need it, according to Victoria Okyere, operations manager for strategic programs and initiatives at Hartford HealthCare.

“Upwards of 10 percent of our colleagues here at the hospital potentially are food insecure,” Fichandler said.

“We are committed to… the people and communities we serve and those who work tirelessly toward [our mission],” Okyere said.