Local food pantries, health providers and farmers team up for the region’s first Veggie Rx Program

Illustrations by Glen Lowry

There are any number of reasons why a person would choose to eat a bag of chips over a mixed-greens salad. Snack-food cravings aside, chips are cheaper, more readily available, easier to prepare and have a longer shelf-life than fresh veggies — factors that can override one’s best intentions to eat healthy.

“It’s heavily ingrained in society ‘eat your fruits and vegetables,’ but it’s one of those things that’s much easier said than done,” said Joyce Wahba, a third-year medical student at the University of Iowa, and an executive coordinator at the UI’s Mobile Clinic. “That bridge between being said and being done — we’re trying to eliminate as many of those obstacles and barriers as humanly possible.”

The Mobile Clinic is teaming up with the UI’s Upstream Clinic (which provides medical care and resources to high-risk pregnant patients and others), the Coralville Community Food Pantry (CCFP), the North Liberty Community Food Pantry, Johnson County’s local foods coordinator Ilsa DeWald and local farmers to get more “high-quality, nutrient-dense” foods into the hands of low-income Johnson County residents and those with diet-related health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.

This month, with the help of the Mobile Clinic, the two food pantries will enroll approximately 20 people each in the new 12-month Veggie Prescription Pilot Program, which will include health screenings and, essentially, a free CSA subscription, providing the participants with 26 weeks of fresh vegetables and fruits. The organizations will be looking for enrollees with both a medical and financial need for supplementary nutrition.

Johnson County has the highest rate of food insecurity in Iowa, with a reported 28,597 people, including 3,910 children, experiencing regular periods of hunger, according to a study conducted by the Upstream Clinic and the CCFP.

“What we’ve realized is people who need these fruits and vegetables the most don’t have access,” Wahba said.

The Veggie Rx Program is designed to disrupt the cycle of food insecurity and health-care inaccessibility. The first of its kind in the state of Iowa, the program is made possible by a $50,000 grant from MidWestOne Bank, presented on Sept. 24.

MidWestOne presents a $50,000 check to fund the Veggie Rx Pilot Program at a press conference on Sept. 24 at Sundog Farm in Solon. — Kate Payne

John Boller, CCFP’s executive director, said about half of this grant will go toward purchasing food for the program’s enrollees, directly from three local farms — Sundog Farm and Local Harvest CSA in Solon; Echollective Farm and CSA near Mechanicsville; and Wild Woods Farm in Iowa City. Another $10,000-12,000 worth of fresh produce will go to the Coralville and North Liberty food pantries, which serve more than 4,000 people total, annually. CCFP also intends to purchase a produce storage cooler.

“We do as much as we can at the pantries to offer this food but it’s never quite enough, so if we’re able to have additional funds to ensure that people are really getting an adequate amount of that product, that means a lot,” Boller said.

The remaining grant money will fund outreach and education campaigns, including cooking classes and demonstrations, which Boller said will make participants “more likely to continue to find these foods and utilize these foods moving forward.”

The UI Mobile Clinic will provide free health screenings for the Veggie Rx enrollees at the start of the program, near the beginning of 2020, as well as at the three-month, six-month and 12-month marks. Wahba said they will measure patients’ blood pressure, BMI and cholesterol, as well as run blood sugar (A1c) tests for those with diabetes. The first couple appointments will focus on individualized health and nutrition education, with the food deliveries scheduled to begin around April.

“Being able to track the impact of not only health education but health education with the means of getting it through with these direct deliveries of vegetables — that will kind of be a proof of concept,” Wahba said. “[We can create] a model that other people are able to follow and reduce these diseases, just with food as opposed to medication.”

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Home-cooked dishes with vegetables at their center are not only packed with vitamins, minerals and proteins, but they can replace fast-food meals heavy in salt, sugar, carbs and fats, which exacerbate issues such as hypertension and hyperlipidemia. There’s no single, magic superfood that can cure what ails you, Wahba said; from kale to squash to apples, the diet you can stick with is the one that’s right for you.

“I think it really comes down to what people like eating,” Wahba said. “If it’s a vegetable a lot of people haven’t heard of or used before, giving them the means to actually use it as opposed to it just sitting on their counters [is important].”

The Veggie Rx program is groundbreaking as a collaboration between five community groups of varied disciplines, Boller said, in addition to its potential to benefit both public health and the local economy.

The Coralville Community Food Pantry serves meals to the public. — courtesy of CCFP

“From the local, sustainable agriculture side of things, it’s a huge boost in income for some of these farmers who rely really heavily on CSA subscriptions just to continue doing what they do,” he said. “It would also mean a lot to individuals who are struggling just to get the food that they need, getting a really beautiful product that’s locally grown, high-quality, grown organically.”

“And then there’s the bigger picture, too,” Boller continued. “This is creating a lot of energy around this idea, and I think a lot of people are excited to keep it going. A lot of people are excited to contribute to the cooking classes and the educational activities.”

MidWestOne’s $50k grant will carry Veggie Rx through its pilot phase, but the program will need strong community support going forward, Boller said. Donations are encouraged, and may be directed through the CCFP at The program will also need to recruit drivers to pick up food from the farms and deliver it directly to the homes of Veggie Rx participants, and/or to a central drop-off point. More information about this volunteer opportunity will be announced in January or February, Boller said.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.