By Thomas Caywood, Telegram & Gazette Staff
WORCESTER — More than an hour before the free vegetables were to be handed out, a dozen people already had lined up outside the Family Health Center on Queen Street.
Once the food distribution began Thursday morning, a truckload of fresh corn, peppers, onions, tomatoes, eggplant and apples donated by a Grafton farm ran out in just half an hour.
Such is the desire among the city's poor for healthy, but expensive fresh produce, said Noreen Johnson-Smith of Family Health Center of Worcester.
"We have a lot of patients who are hungry and struggle to feed their families. That often means inexpensive processed foods. It's easy to find very low-quality foods that abate hunger and fill stomachs, but don't nourish," Ms. Johnson-Smith said. "This is an excellent initiative to begin to address that."
The Farm to Health Center Initiative, which began in July and will continue through the end of the growing season in September, was started this year by three future doctors studying at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"The less-expensive food tends to be calorie dense and nutritionally poor. You get a lot of fat and sugar, but not a lot of vitamins," said Elizabeth Rosen '11, a second-year medical student, Academic All-American and former swimming and diving team captain.
Because nutrition is important to good health, Ms. Rosen and her classmates wondered if doctors should be prescribing vegetables to their patients in the same way they do medications. Then, taking inspiration from a similar program in Boston, they figured why not just bring the vegetables directly to the patients of a health center that serves low-income families in the city.
Kristina Naum of Worcester left the health center Thursday with a bag of corn, baby eggplant, tomatoes and apples that she said would be difficult for her to afford otherwise.
"This is great. It lets our family eat some healthy food. It seems like the healthier the food is, the more expensive it," Ms. Naum said.
Raghad Naji of Worcester happily picked up some fresh corn, tomatoes and apples. Originally from Iraq, Ms. Naji said her family sometimes struggles to afford fresh produce as they establish themselves in their new country.
Area food banks also distribute fresh produce during the growing season, but Ms. Rosen hopes the health center initiative also will encourage family physicians to talk to patients regularly about nutrition and to find out if patients get enough food.
Ms. Rosen and fellow medical students Rachel Erdil and Kathryn Bailey plan to add healthy cooking classes, healthy shopping tours and outreach to physicians as components of the Farm to Health Center program next year.
"We're trying to create an environment where healthy food and getting enough food is something family physicians ask about," Ms. Rosen said.
The roughly 1,200 pounds of produce distributed Thursday morning at Family Health Center was donated by the Community Harvest Project of Grafton, a nonprofit farm that grows vegetables for hunger relief programs in Massachusetts.
Community Harvest's Alicia Cianciola chatted with patients as they waited in line. Several told her they were inspired to try cooking some healthy meals with the vegetables fresh from the Grafton farm.
The farm workers often load boxes of vegetables on trucks bound for food pantries and other programs without getting to meet the people who will enjoy the food. The interaction with patients at Family Health Center helped remind her why she does the work, Ms. Cianciola said.
"When the tomatoes turn red, everyone gets excited to eat them," she said, "but it's even more exciting to give them away."