Veggie market helps Harrisburg residents eat healthy

Tracey McManus, Staff Writer for the Augusta Chronicle

After a long day at work, dinner for Nancy Birchfield used to mean something she could grab from a drive-through or in a cardboard box.

She wanted to eat healthy, and had always cooked for the eight children she raised, but prices of fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store put her in a bind.

With nine people to feed in her Harrisburg home, Birchfield, 52, needed some guidance.

When the G.R.O.W. Harris­burg Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program launched at the beginning of June, Birchfield and 13 other women in the neighborhood not only got lessons on how to incorporate more greens into their diet but also got a leg up on affording the foods they need to stay healthy.

The Prescription Program, funded with a $20,000 grant from Wholesome Wave Georgia for June through October, is the first of its kind in Georgia and is a collaboration between various state and local groups dedicated to helping people live healthier and more sustainably, said Takisha Burke, community coordinator for G.R.O.W. Harrisburg.

The 14 women selected were identified through the Harrisburg Family Healthcare clinic and all have some sort of diet-related ailment such as diabetes or obesity, Burke said.

The women receive a weekly allowance of $1 per day for every family member in their home that they can use at The Veggie Truck Farmers Market every Tuesday at A.L. Williams Park.

Icebox Ministries also launched a once-a-month cooking class for the women, where they learn new recipes and ways to incorporate nutritious food in every meal.

“I started this thing wanting to get two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and now I’m getting more like four,” Birchfield said.

Birchfield, who has diabetes and hypertension, said the meals of canned food from her past are no more. Now she slices up fresh squash and zucchini, which she didn’t even think she liked before, into a chili that she puts into a crock pot before heading to work at Doctors Hospital as a multiskilled technician.

“I just wish more people in Harrisburg could be a part of this,” she said. “A lot of people can’t work or live in houses that probably shouldn’t be standing. If we got more people involved, it could help a lot of families that need it.”

Burke said the women meet with physicians once a month at the Harrisburg Healthcare clinic for consultations, and students from Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University call the families once a week to make sure there are no problems with their diets.

St. Luke United Methodist Church also has a shuttle to pick up the women and drive them to the market to prevent transportation barriers.

“It’s really transformative in the most beautiful way,” Burke said. “It’s not only educational, but it’s building community, it’s having access to healthy food in a way that they are able to learn how to cook and prepare it. It’s allowing children to be involved and educating the children in the cooking classes. It’s a whole level of wellness in a way that actually sticks.”

Being the pilot year for the Prescription Program, Augusta Locally Grown executive director Kim Haines said the organizations involved will evaluate the success of the project when it concludes in October to create a plan for future phases. Haines said she hopes to get another grant from Wholesome Wave Georgia next year and has already seen the dramatic impact it has had on local families.

When the pilot ends in October, Haines said the women will be able to take advantage of the other initiatives within G.R.O.W. Harrisburg to maintain their diets and use the skills they learned from the Prescription Program.

G.R.O.W. Harrisburg hosts The Veggie Truck Farmers Market every Tuesday, where residents receive $2 of product for every $1 of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

The organization also helped plant 100 raised vegetable beds throughout Harrisburg, and St. Luke is working to create community meals for residents, Haines said.

“The Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program is just one piece of what we do,” she said. “It’s definitely year-round.”

Lorretta Adderson of Adderson’s Fresh Produce, one of about six regular farmers who sell at the Harrisburg market, said the Prescription Program has been rewarding for her as well.

Adderson said a customer ran up to her booth last week to announce she had already dropped a few pounds and was feeling better with more energy.

Adderson is used to selling her squash, okra, eggplant, and organic fingerling potatoes to all kinds of people – but this was special.

“The feedback has been great,” she said. “That’s what fresh food does. It has more nutrients, it’s better for you.”