Fresh, healthy and local

Jennifer Branham of Laguna Farm provides fresh local produce for the Farmacy and CSA program located in the Forestville Wellness Center, which provides organic produce straight from the farm to low-income people for discounted prices.

Healthcare professionals and farmers help low-income families with healthy food access

In an effort to provide healthful food access to their patients, the Forestville Wellness Center has recently created the Farmacy program, providing fresh produce to low-income people for discounted prices. The farm stand and CSA partnership program piloted through West County Health Center (WCHC) is a network of farmers and healthcare professionals supporting rural West County communities in their access to organic, local fruits and vegetables.

Kaleigh Spollen, community healthcorps member of WCHC, said after looking over the Food Action Plan written by the Sonoma County Food System Alliance, the high food barriers of rural West County shocked her.

“In seeing how badly it was needed, I knew I wanted to connect our underserved patients to healthy food and hopefully empower them in their health,” Spollen said.

The Farmacy Program is affiliated with Farmers Market L.I.F.E. (Local Incentive for Food and Economy) Program, which makes locally grown, fresh food more affordable to CalFresh (food stamp) customers. The program matches customers’ CalFresh benefits spent at participating markets, dollar-for-dollar, up to a $10 or $20 maximum, depending on the market.

It was Petaluma based Bounty Farms director Suzi Grady, who runs the L.I.F.E program and who also helped to expand the benefits through CalFresh incentives to the WCHC Farmacy program. Seasoned in a similar program, Grady created the Bounty Farmacy in 2013 with the Petaluma Health Center.

“In the portrait of Sonoma, there is a large unmet need in West County,” Grady said. “It’s really hard for people to access services due to the lack of public transportation and other unique challenges.”

Grady said the overall goal of the Farmacy program is to support patients that are already engaged in health behavior changes, especially related to diet, to use the sliding scale farm stand at the Forestville center.

“The Forestville Farmacy program was created to get people to try a new behavior, getting familiar with it, so that they knew they had an ongoing resource,” Grady said. “It’s important in every household that low-income people know where they can go to get healthy fresh food.”

With over 40 percent of WCHC’s patients at or above the federal poverty level, Spollen said they are trying to reach low-income people in West County that are using the California Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) program.

“Our whole mission is to support people in their health but especially underserved people in our community,” she said. “If we support people that use EBT — it increases their purchasing power.”

CSA boxes bought through CalFresh at the Farmacy are subsidized through a fund from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) Grant Program. Spollen said the boxes bought through an EBT card are half the price of retail.

Providing the produce for the CSAs and Farmacy program is Jennifer Branham of Laguna Farm.

Inspired by her own experience 12 years ago, as a newly single mother receiving CalFresh benefits, Branham’s memory of wanting fresh healthy food for her son is a visceral one.

 “I knew a lot about healthy food and I wanted to buy fresh and local and yet I felt ashamed that I was using my food stamp card to buy these nice organic things,” Branham said.

After six months, Branham began working full-time, which made her ineligible for the benefits but she said the memory stuck.

“I always remember what that was like and I’ve carried that with me,” she said.

Branham is a pioneer in the changing spectrum of Sonoma County’s food system. After purchasing Laguna Farm five years ago, Branham applied so that she could accept EBT cards in her farm store. Shortly after, she started raising money in the store so that she could give those using an EBT card an extra $5 for shopping with her.

“I had an understanding that local food might seem more expensive, might be an investment and that it probably took some time to get to Laguna,” Branham said. “I wanted to give them an extra benefit.”

Branham said she loves supporting the Farmacy program and  because it is a CSA drop site, anyone in the community can get a box of fresh local produce that is in season. Branham sends five extra boxes per week where the center can sell the produce at the farm stand to the patients.

Believing that food is a human right, Branham said economic status shouldn’t affect the ability to access quality food.

“Your income level, or the situation that you are at in life, or the size of your family shouldn’t affect your ability to get healthy fresh food,” Branham said. “I believe very strongly that food is a human right and quality fresh organic food is a right for everyone too.”

The co-location of the Farmacy program in the Forestville Wellness Center makes it a viable model for addressing food insecurity and tackling chronic illness ,Spollen said. The center offers classes that focus on nutrition and wellness as well as CSAs offering cooking tips and storage tips for seasonal items in the box.

“I think the co-location helps to form a deeper connection for our patients between their wellness and their community,” Spollen said.

It is much easier to go to where people are accustomed to receiving services such as local community health clinics, Grady said.

“Another piece to that is to align nutrition education with access initiative,” Grady said. “I think with people’s busy schedules and limited transportation, they need to be in the same place when people are motivated to start buying more fruits and vegetables.”

Grady said as a farmer, she sees healthy sustainably grown food as being the cornerstone of good health and wellness.

“And we are lucky to have partners in our community and health care providers that believe the same,” she said.

The Forestville Wellness Center’s CSA program is open to the community and is open on Thursdays between 2 and 5:30 p.m. at 6550 Front Street in Forestville.

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