FARMacy in action across West Virginia
Over the last four years, Be Healthy has had the privilege to support more than 30 projects dedicated to increasing physical activity and healthy food access across McDowell and Clay Counties. In the process, we’ve collaborated with a wonderful network of people and organizations at state and local levels who are equally invested in bringing our project partners’ visions to life and maximizing impact for long-term sustainability.
One of the statewide organizations we’ve collaborated with in 2022 is the FARMacy program. Founded in 2016 by the Wheeling Health Right Clinic and Grow Ohio Valley, FARMacy is an initiative that aims to increase fresh foods access to rural populations through weekly produce “prescriptions” from participating providers.
At each participating clinic, providers extend complementary FARMacy produce vouchers to 25-30 patients, particularly those struggling with obesity or chronic illnesses like diabetes. Once prescribed, FARMacy vouchers can be redeemed on-site at participating providers’ clinics.
But the FARMacy program’s impact doesn’t end at the register. FARMacy offers evidence-based free nutrition and healthy food preparation classes for patients and their families. FARMacy also supports the local economy and agricultural industry by sourcing most fruits and vegetables through local farms. Using data collected throughout the project to adapt and finesse their strategies over the years, FARMacy has expanded across 25 counties in West Virginia and benefited an estimated 750 patients and their families.
FARMacy’s statewide goals
Gina Wood, WVU Extension Specialist and Co-Director of the Family Nutrition Program, has been involved in FARMacy’s state-level leadership for three years. She said she believes the FARMacy’s comprehensive approach and hands-on guidance has led to its “exponential” growth.
“You can give someone a bag of produce, but when you have one of our staff on the ground, showing people directly ‘This is how you chop this,’ and ‘This is a couple of different ways you can prepare this to make sure that you’re doing it in a healthy way,’ you’re letting folks participate in that food preparation and tasting,” Wood said. “When they see it in action, and they get to participate and engage in that way, I think it makes a huge difference.”
The open forums can also provide a chance for patients to learn to work with what’s available. Using canned or frozen goods can be just as nutritious as fresh foods, she said, adding that if low sodium or sugar free options aren’t available, simply draining and rinsing off the produce can help.
“I think sometimes we feel like fresh is always the best, and I think in large part that is likely true. But when you look at canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, those things are typically picked and packed on the same day, so they don’t lose their nutritional value in transport like fresh produce can. We often think of those as less appealing or perhaps not as healthy, which is not, which is not necessarily the case, so we shouldn’t overlook those options. Those options can be tasty, they can be very affordable.”
Throughout the duration of each project, FARMacy links patients with two critical resources: clinic staff, who can answer health-related inquiries, and the FARMacy staff, who can handle nutrition-based subjects.
“Having the clinic staff there really sort of drives that message home that this is an investment in your health, and we believe that this food is medicine,” Wood said. “Then having that experience of seeing it being cooked and prepared and being able to taste it, I think it brings a lot of richness to the experience.”
Though the program has years of data backing its projects’ impacts, Wood said she thinks the most valuable and rewarding conversations happen one-on-one with patients, facilitators, and providers at the participating sites.
“Data is always exciting,” Wood said. “You’d love to see a collective drop in hemoglobin A1C, right? You love to see the data — that part is really exciting. But nothing beats going out and talking to the people who are directly involved.”
Statewide, Wood said the FARMacy team’s long-term goal is to make their program and similar efforts available to anyone who wants or needs to participate. Since FARMacy relies on external funding to support its multi-week programs, participants’ spots are limited. Wood said the FARMacy team eventually hopes to see third-party funders, like insurance companies, get involved in covering costs of the program’s produce.
“I think that the overall goal is to ensure a sort of broad level of scalability and sustainability so we can increase access to the program for patients who want to participate or could benefit from participating,” Wood said. “And that obviously will take a lot of work, because, of course, funding is always, always an issue.”
Clay County’s first FARMacy proves successful
This summer, FARMacy added a new location to their map: Clay County. Community Care West Virginia, a multi-year Be Healthy project partner, received funding to support a FARMacy program at the Big Otter Clinic. The funds sponsored 15 weeks of prepaid produce for 25 individuals. Previously, the CCWV team received funding to create a walking trail behind the clinic for patient and community use.
Based on current data, the Big Otter Clinic’s patients benefited in multiple ways from the prescription produce program, said Selah Raines, Health Educator for Braxton and Clay Counties through the WVU Extension Family Nutrition Program. Raines participated as a nutrition education provider and advisor.
This summer, Raines assisted in hosting cooking demos and tastings each week and adult nutrition classes using WVU Extension’s SNAP-Ed resources.
“Patients learned how to meal plan, make shopping lists, and compare prices to help stretch their food dollars,” Raines said. “They also learned about the nutritional importance of each food group and why it is important to be physically active daily.”
Raines was also responsible for bringing the groceries to the classes, which brought its own challenges since Clay County has one grocery store. For many rural families, obstacles like limited income and transportation, distance, and fuel costs make it difficult to access fresh foods. Convenience stores, gas stations, and dollar store offerings often fill in the gaps.
Raines said she knows what it’s like to experience food insecurity — it was once her reality.
“We rarely had enough food in the house growing up,” Raines said. “I know what it’s like to be hungry, so increasing food access and awareness is important to me. Hunger and food access are big factors in social determinants of health. Helping people improve their health outcomes is its own reward.”
Raines echoed Wood’s desire to secure consistent external funding to support the program. At the CCWV, efforts are already underway to support next year’s FARMacy program.
“FARMacy is dependent on outside funding sources because food and education are provided at no cost to the participants,” Raines said. “We are hopeful the data we collect will eventually sway insurance companies to cover prescription produce costs. In the meantime, I am collaborating with Dr. Jones from the Big Otter CCWV Clinic on a grant to fund FARMacy at that site next summer.”
Ways to support FARMacy projects in your region
Wood recommended that any individual, group, or farm interested in getting involved or supporting or collaborating with the FARMacy program contact their state team directly through Carol Antonelli-Greco at firstname.lastname@example.org.