By Gus Schumacher
With Veterans Day around the corner, two Martinsburg registered dietitians have found innovative ways to get fresh, local, affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to West Virginian Veterans.
Barbara Hartman, MS, RD, LD, and her colleague, Annemarie Price at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, have tapped federal nutrition programs to provide discounted fresh fruits and vegetables to Veterans, a group in which one in five suffer from diabetes. In the process, they hope to improve their nutrition and health.
These dietitians reached out to local farmers to get their produce into the cafeteria and onto patient food trays at the Martinsburg VA Medical Center. They also worked with the Veterans Administration Canteen Service to set up a weekly farmers market at their Medical Center.
They then worked with local farmers to offer a 14-week Community Supported Agriculture(CSA) program , in which consumers pay a fee to get regular weekly fresh fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers.
Their initiatives work because government-sponsored nutrition programs make the produce affordable. For instance, Hartman arranged for Veterans to use their SNAP EBT cards at the Martinsburg VA farmers market, working with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive(FINI) Program and matched with Wholesome Wave (www.wholesomewave.org) funds. Their joint programs offered incentives doubling Veterans' purchasing power using their SNAP EBT cards at this farmers market.
At the same time, doctors at the Martinsburg VA worked with 40 Veterans with diabetes to pilot an FVRx Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program, based in part on an initiative started by Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit based in Bridgeport, CT.
With funds from a Veterans Administration's Rural Health grant, doctors prescribed a weekly $35 "fruit and vegetable prescription" to eligible Veterans, who must agree to participate in classes on improving health and nutrition, reducing weight and increasing activity.
Bobbi Corbin, the VA's acting primary-care business manager, said doctors had so far gotten positive responses from the group, with some weight loss and blood-pressure improvements after just 14 weeks.
The Veterans' nutrition programs have also helped out local farmers too. Derek Kilmer, who farms in Inwood, WV, now delivers his produce twice a week to the Medical Center's kitchen and sells his produce at the VA farmers market on Wednesdays too.
Kilmer said he is particularly pleased with the Medical Center’s prompt payment. If more funding was available, he said he could deliver as much as 1,000 CSA deliveries a week for Veterans in the region.
``All but one of the Vets came each Wednesday for 14 weeks,'' Kilmer said. ``Many were ‘meat and potatoes customers ’ and were pleased to be introduced to just-picked, fresh produce, especially strawberries, cherries, peaches and tomatoes.''
With 49 VA Medical facilities hosting on-site farmers markets and hundreds of farmers growing fruits and vegetables nearby, these innovative Veteran Farmers Market Nutrition programs, led by dedicated VA dietitians, would be a double win--improving the health of our Veterans and the bottom lines of America’s farmers.
“Having good food, having good nutrition, is key to prevention,” said Hartman.
The food at the VA cafeteria tastes better too, said Mackey Bonner, a food service worker, who says patient and staff taste panels have preferred meals featuring locally grown produce.
“Veterans compare us to other VAs they’ve eaten at and they say we have the best food,” Bonner said. “Matter of fact, a lot of them wants to transfer their treatment due to the food we serve.
Farmer Derek Kilmer at Martinsburg, WVA Medical Center Farmers Market Photo: Barbara Hartman