A patient in the OU-HCOM Diabetes Free Clinic consults with the Heritage Community Clinic’s Tobie Newberry, CNP.
Photo courtesy of: OU-HCOM
Nov 5, 2011
By Alyse Lorber
Balancing healthcare and nutrition can be a difficult task for some Southeast Ohio residents. The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine’s (OU-HCOM) Heritage Community Clinic is working to address both needs by providing medical services as well as access to healthy, local foods.
Clinic staff initiated a food collection program in June 2010 after an encounter with a patient at the Diabetes Free Clinic, a monthly opportunity for underinsured or uninsured patients with the disease to get care and assistance with medication.
"We noticed one of our diabetic patients having difficulty affording food," explained Melissa Kemper, assistant director of Community Health Programs at OU-HCOM. "That was a red flag for us because making good food choices and having access to fruits, vegetables and nutritious meals is one of the most important pieces of controlling diabetes."
Staff began calling local food banks to help that patient, but the effort quickly turned into something much bigger. It sparked food donation drives at OU-HCOM that today are helping provide members of the Southeast Ohio community with not just food, but nutrition that can help improve their health.
Serving up healthy choices
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains - the components of a healthy diet - typically come with a higher price tag than less healthy menu items such as fast or processed foods. In Appalachian Ohio, where poverty rates are higher than anywhere else in the state, that means it’s not always easy for residents to put healthy meals on the table.
Understanding those circumstances, and given the clinic’s mission to serve communities in need, food drives were a natural step to take, Kemper said. The clinic’s programs, which range from childhood immunizations and obesity prevention to glaucoma and blood pressure screenings, are offered to uninsured and underinsured patients from the region.
"It’s a perfect fit for us to promote healthy eating while offering services to improve health," she said.
In 2010, Kemper and colleagues began collecting bags of non-perishable food items and offering them to each diabetes clinic patient and other patients who could make use of them. A certified diabetes educator came up with a list of foods that would be appropriate to give to diabetes patients, and OU-HCOM staff created healthy recipes for patients and tips on how to prepare the food.
Once the word got out about the food collection, churches, sororities and local residents and businesses joined the effort. OU-HCOM faculty, students and staff often pitch in, for example, by making non-perishable foods required for admission to holiday or fundraising events. The bags, still given out today, include things like canned fruits and vegetables, whole wheat pasta and bread, tuna, peanut butter and green beans.
Dishing out fresh solutions
In August this year, the effort gained more momentum when clinic staff began collaborating with the Community Food Initiatives (CFI), an organization that works to expand access to fresh, local foods in Appalachian Ohio. The new partnership allowed the clinic to add locally grown produce to their offerings.
"Some people might never pick up a butternut squash at the store," said Lauren Borovicka, program coordinator for the ComCorps program, "but if we provide it to them and give them information on how to cook it, they might see it at the store and try it again. Plus, we’re supporting local agriculture at the same time."
ComCorps is an AmeriCorps program administered by OU-HCOM with the goal of providing health education across Athens County. With volunteers working across the county to increase access to fresh foods, Borovicka realized their efforts would be valuable at home in OU-HCOM.
Each Monday, Kaitlyn Kelly, AmeriCorps member and Heritage Community Clinic volunteer, picks up produce from the CFI donation station, located at the Athens Farmer's Market on East State Street, and delivers it to the clinic. The produce includes seasonal selections, such as apples and root vegetables.
"We’re trying for a combination of produce people will recognize and some lesser known foods in order to increase exposure to different kinds of fruits and vegetables," Kelly said.
In the past three months alone, the clinics have provided 1,076 pounds of food to 297 community members.
"We know healthy eating and diet are such a huge part of health," Borovicka said. "We just want to reduce barriers to that as much as possible.”
This special Compass series features the programs and initiatives through which Ohio University students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends are realizing their promise as they elevate lives across the region. These people-focused success stories take you behind the scenes and highlight the many meaningful ways OHIO serves society by supporting educational, economic, creative and wellness endeavors, as well as other humanitarian efforts.
*Elizabeth Boyle contributed to this article.