It starts like any visit to the doctor. Johnnie Trice walks into an exam room, where Stephanie Carrington checks her blood pressure and weight. They light up at the results: In seven weeks, Trice's blood pressure has dropped 20 points and she's lost five pounds.
"It's gone down!" Trice says. "You wanted to send me to the ER the first time you checked me."
From there, the discussion turns exclusively to vegetables.
Trice has a prescription for produce, and this is her weekly checkup. She's one of about 48 residents from 13 households in the city housing project Creighton Court who are participating in a program that aims to improve health by reshaping diets. It's an initiative of Shalom Farms, a community farm that's working to broaden access to healthy food for Richmond's most impoverished residents.
Carrington, a community health advocate who works part time for the city Health Department and part time for Shalom Farms, asks Trice how her diet's going.
"I made a squash and zucchini casserole," she says. "That thing came out so good — oh my goodness."
Dominic Barrett, the executive director of Shalom Farms, says similar approaches have been tried elsewhere. A 2010 article in The New York Times detailed an initiative by doctors at three health centers in Massachusetts who began prescribing produce from local farmers' markets to patients. Richmond-based Tricycle Gardens launched an initiative last year to put its locally grown vegetables in corner stores in the city where access to fresh produce is limited.
Shalom's prescription program is a bit different, Barrett says. The farm pairs diet with health check-ups and positive outcomes — and Carrington says participants overwhelmingly see improvements to their health.
The whole program is run right in the housing project. Screenings are in a Health Department office on the property and the farm stand is set up right outside. Barrett says the goal is to address access to food — many residents are without reliable transportation — while they work to educate them on how to use it.
To that end, each health check-up ends with a recipe consultation with Claire Hitchins, a Shalom Farms employee.
During a recent visit, Hitchins asks Trice how she liked the collard greens she picked up last week. Trice seasoned them using an onion instead of salt and says they were delicious. Hitchins says this week the farm has some mustard greens and hands over a recipe that calls for seasoning them with apple cider vinegar.
Trice heads outside to the farm stand where she fills up a bag with State Fair-worthy greens, tomatoes and onions. The market is open to all residents, Barrett says, and the vegetables are affordable — heavily subsidized by the program's sponsors, including the Pauley Family Foundation and Bon Secours Richmond Health System.
Like most of the other participants, Carrington convinced Trice to join the program during a routine health screening. Before Trice signed on, she was buying whatever she could afford at the nearby corner markets. A typical dinner was pork chops, rice and gravy. Now she makes vegetable casserole and stir fries.
"I'd go and get some canned this — canned vegetables and stuff — because that's the only thing I could afford. Now since I'm into the fresh vegetables — that's what I'm going for."
It's made a big difference, she says: "I have arthritis, high blood pressure, I have a little bit of everything. But since I've been participating in the program, my cholesterol is good — everything. I used to barely be able to walk." S