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‘Food farmacy’ opens in Hartford, targets food insecurity among city residents

'Food farmacy' opens in Hartford
Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public
Rosa Cano shops fresh fruits and vegetables at Hartford HealthCare's Healthy Food Resource Center, which opened May 6, 2022. A small grocery store on the grounds of Hartford Hospital serves patients who may be food insecure, or who lack access to affordable nutritious foods. Many patients referred to the program are women or residents living with chronic health conditions.

Rosa Cano opened the door to a fridge filled with fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I’m taking some broccolis,” she said, putting a handful of produce in a green reusable bag before moving on to the next fridge. “Some tomatoes. Good for salad, for diet.”

On a recent Friday morning, Cano, a Hartford resident, picked out food in what looked like a small grocery bodega. But unlike a typical store, this space exists on the grounds of Hartford HealthCare.

The food is locally sourced and donated – free to residents – and nutritionists are on site to help people with their selections.

The new center, sometimes referred to as a “food farmacy,” is part of an effort to reduce food insecurity among Connecticut residents and enable people to shop for fresh, nutritious foods tailored specifically to their health needs.

Food insecurity refers not only to quantity of food, but also quality – it occurs when a person lacks access to enough affordable, nutritious options.

An estimated 12% of Connecticut’s total population, or about 428,800 people, are food insecure, according to a 2019 report by Feeding America.

The rate of food insecurity is even higher among Connecticut children at 15%.

“The last few years of the pandemic have shown the enormous gap that exists in the access to nutrition,” said Bimal Patel, senior vice president at Hartford HealthCare.

The health organization officially opened its first Healthy Food Resource Center last week. It’s modeled after other kinds of centers across the country that use a “food as medicine” approach where health providers directly refer at-risk patients to onsite food stores.

“We could try to educate our patients and give them resources,” said Dr. Jessica Mullins, “but it does not replace something as easy as walking over to the hospital and picking out fresh produce right here near your home.”

Patel said the center in Hartford will prioritize women and residents with chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

“Our mission was to have as much fresh fruit and vegetables as we could,” said David Juros, program nutritional consultant. “That right now at least, and often, is some of the hardest for people to afford.”

Patients will work with nutritionists to come up with foods and dishes that are in the best interest of their health needs. They can then pick out groceries for themselves, as well as for their families.

“So, we’re balancing between choice, which is very important for families, as well as helping the patient get the food that is right for their medical conditions,” Juros said.

Mullins, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Hartford Hospital, said food insecurity and poor nutrition can have long-term health consequences if not corrected early.

“In prenatal patients who have food insecurity, they’re more likely to have inappropriate and excessive weight gain,” she said, “and that definitely predisposes them to worsening pregnancy outcomes.”

At the food center in Hartford, a city where nearly 44% of residents are Latino, all signage for food items and produce is listed in English and Spanish. Juros said it was important to offer grocery items that are culturally relevant to the populations they serve.

“We have tomatillos up on top there,” he said, pointing to a tiered produce rack. “We have malanga in the cases over here, we have lots of kinds of peppers, papayas, mangos with everything else that we’ve got.”

Hartford HealthCare officials said the new center is at the beginning of a larger plan for phased-in expansions of services.

For residents like Cano, who credited her health to eating fresh produce, the new center on Retreat Avenue will become part of their normal routines in choosing food for themselves and their families.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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