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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

This ‘Pharmacy’ Dispenses Fresh, Organic Produce To Combat Health Problems On The West Side

"We hope that the VeggieRx program can serve as a model for helping people change their eating habits."

Photo Courtesy of Chicago Botanic Garden
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NORTH LAWNDALE — There’s a new pharmacy serving Lawndale — but instead of pills, the prescriptions will be for fresh, organic green veggies.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Botanic Garden launched this year’s season of the VeggieRx program, in partnership with the Lawndale Christian Health Center.

It is modeled as a nutrient pharmacy. Patients with diet-related illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes can get a VeggieRx prescription from a physician. After an initial consultation that reinforces healthy lifestyle choices and nutritious eating practices, patients can redeem their prescriptions for a free box of fresh veggies each week through Nov. 14.

“If they don’t have a prescription for the provider, it doesn’t exclude them from the program,” said Eliza Fournier, the Botanic Garden’s program director for Windy City Harvest, an urban agriculture training program for young people in Chicago based at the Farm on Ogden, 3555 W. Ogden Ave.

“But what we found is that patients who do have a prescription from their provider tend to be the ones who are coming down time after time because it’s integrated into their health care plan, and really understand the importance of it to their specific health care situation.”

The veggie boxes also come with up to $100 of Produce Perks, redeemable at Windy City Harvest Farm Stands in Lawndale, Austin, Washington Park and at the Farm on Ogden.

SNAP beneficiaries can use the Produce Perks to pay for up to half of their purchases. Those perks stack onto the Illinois LinkUp benefits, which provide double value for each dollar spent at farmers markets on fruits and veggies with a LINK card.

Each VeggieRx box comes with about $15 worth of produce, with a variety of six to eight different types of vegetables organically grown and packed by Windy City Harvest participants.

The boxes come along with free nutrition education materials such as healthy recipes specific to the produce received. Participating farm stands also offer weekly nutrition education and cooking demonstrations, run by the University of Illinois’ Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion. Fournier says that this component is important for “knowing what the food is, knowing how to prepare it, and then making sure that those lessons are also culturally relevant to the different individuals who are coming together.”

“Lawndale Christian Health Center, who is our partner in the Farm on Ogden, is really looking to address the multiple points of access to healthy lifestyles that people who live in North Lawndale have not had access to,” Fournier said.

The program was created at the request of local community organizations like the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council to improve affordable food access in Lawndale, Austin and Maywood, while also improving health outcomes among SNAP recipients with respect to diet-related diseases.

Fournier says these goals are especially critical because of massive disparities in health outcomes experienced by people living on the West Side.

“Only about 9 percent of Americans are getting their recommended daily allowance of vegetables every day,” she said, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on average eating habits of Americans. “In North Lawndale, the life expectancy is significantly lower as compared to, say, the Loop. … There’s a higher incidence of diet-related diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, things like heart disease.”

To that end, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s partnerships with Lawndale Christian Health Center, PCC Community Wellness and Loyola Center for Health help them to enroll patients who are at risk or suffering from diet-related illness.

When it first launched in 2016, VeggieRx distributed 392 boxes of produce through its only community partner, Lawndale Christian Health Center. Now, the Chicago Botanic Garden projects that it will reach over 400 patients with over 2,050 veggie boxes, while also partnering with PCC Community Wellness and Proviso Partners for Health.

By collaborating with PCC Community Wellness, VeggieRx will be able to extend services substantially into Austin.

“In Austin, the cool thing is that they’re actually specifically targeted to diabetic patients. They’re coupling a group medical visit with the VeggieRx programming to hopefully help people manage their diabetes better,” said Fournier.

With the three-year-old program quickly growing across the West Side, Fournier hopes it will inspire other communities struggling with public health crises to take action.

“We hope that the VeggieRx program can serve as a model for helping people change their eating habits and their lifestyle habits,” said Fournier, “to reduce the disparity in life expectancy from downtown to the West Side.”

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