Food Rx: Treating the Whole Patient with Whole Foods

For local residents in rural, Southwestern Colorado, fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices are hard to come by. Budgets are squeezed further when a member of the family is diagnosed with a chronic illness, requiring time off from work and frequent trips to the clinic or hospital. To help patients overcome these barriers to accessing healthy foods, chronic disease patients at the Basin Clinic in Naturita and the Uncompahgre Medical Center in Norwood were selected to participate in a new fresh food prescription pilot program by Tri-County Health Network. The program kicked off in 2018, and Tri-County Health Network is pursuing funding to expand the successful program.

The fresh food prescription program is a great example of Tri-County Health Network’s collaborative approach to identifying barriers to healthcare and working with local partners to address them. In this case, Tri-County Health Network teamed up with patient health navigators (PHNs) whose jobs involve working with patients to understand how to deal with and manage chronic illnesses. PHNs ‘prescribe’ healthy doses of fresh fruit and vegetables to patients with a chronic condition. Patients can then take these prescriptions or vouchers to the Nucla farmer’s market, Redd’s Mercantile in Nucla, or the FRESH Food Hub in Norwood, and receive their prescription of fruit and vegetables. 

Both PHNs involved in this pilot program found that the programs had benefits beyond adding local, fresh fruits and vegetables to patient’s diets. Cyndi Wargowski, the PHN at Basin Clinic, found that over 80% of her participants enjoyed the social aspect of the program as the prescriptions to the West End Farmer’s Market motivated patients to go and mingle with their friends and neighbors. Kristen Williams, the PHN at the Uncompahgre Medical Center, worked with a gentleman who did not cook for himself and whose diet suffered as a result. After working with Kristen and using her recipes, he is now routinely cooking his own dinners, eating less red meat and consuming more vegetables. 

Tri-County Health Network’s Regional Health Connector, Alexis Klein, has played a significant role in the fresh food prescription program. Alexis sees many benefits to the program that extend beyond connecting patients in need to fresh fruits and vegetables. According to Alexis, the program also raises awareness of local food resources and supports the local food economy. Alexis is working on a manual based on best-practices from these pilot programs so that the program can be replicated in other clinics across the region. As she works to expand the program, Alexis noted that “non-profits, medical clinics, food producers, and businesses have come together to treat the whole patient through increasing access to whole foods – without collaboration, this project would not be possible.”

-Kody Gerkin, Community Outreach Manager at TCHNetwork

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