Rows and rows of green crops are blossoming from the soil at the Sustainable Living Center Central Park Greenhouses in Central Park.
The vegetables, from corn to kale, will not remain in the soil too long, though. They will soon be harvested and eventually land in the mouths and stomachs of dozens of Schenectady County residents.
The greenhouse center, run by head grower Hassleer Jacinto-Whitcher, has harvested more than 400 pounds of vegetables for the HealthShares program so far. The HealthShares program provides free organic and fresh vegetables to people who are at risk for cardiovascular and chronic disease including the obese.
“Every single thing is organic here,” Jacinto-Whitcher explained. “In a conventional farm you won’t see weeds, but here you can see weeds because we don’t use any herbicide.”
The HealthShares program also provides nutritional education and guidance for program participants.
“We are encouraging them to eat healthy,” Denise Kolankowski, the program coordinator for HealthShares, said. “They are still writing prescriptions and sending people down as we speak.”
A health care provider at Ellis Family Health prescribes a voucher, or “prescription,” to patients for the free vegetables. The voucher can then be traded in for vegetables during the scheduled pickup days on Tuesdays and Thursdays in front of Ellis Health Center. Participants continue to get the free vegetables every two weeks once enrolled.
Dr. Desmond Foo from the Ellis Family Health Center, said he writes about 10 prescriptions a day for the vegetables. He said about 80 to 90 percent of his patients have a chronic issue such as obesity or heart disease. Vegetables are the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of healthy living, he explained.
“I think the majority of the program is just about raising awareness,” he said.
Natalie Schubel, an intern with HealthShares, agreed.
“Basically it encourages people to eat more vegetables and fruit,” she said. “People are so, so thankful that we are doing this.”
More than 100 vouchers have been prescribed so far and more than 50 people have enrolled in the HealthShares program.
Most of the participants in the program come from low-income families, according to Sarah Pechar, the assistant director of programs at Cornell Cooperate Extension.
“People have been really positive. They want the vegetables,” Pechar said. “You have to expose people.”
One of the major components of the program includes nutritional education.
“Every time somebody comes back they are going to get a different nutrition education lesson,” Pechar said. “We want the information to be different every time.”
While Tammy Keyser, 43, and Michelle Keyser, 19, waited for their free vegetables, they received a lesson in portion control. In particular, the lesson was on how to visualize a 100-calorie serving. They were given three empty bowls and asked to fill each one with what they believed was a 100-calorie serving. One serving was using Hershey’s kisses, the other pretzels and another carrots. It was shocking for some participants to see how many carrots they could eat to get 100 calories as compared to Hershey’s kisses.
“I have only come twice,” Tammy Keyser explained. “But I think it has benefitted me a lot.”
In addition to receiving the vegetables and nutritional advice, participants also receive different recipes every week based on the vegetables they are given. Schubel explained that the program is really health and organic focused. The fact the produce is locally grown is a positive as well.
“We are growing it,” she said. “We know exactly where it is coming from.”
HealthShares is provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension Schenectady County in conjunction with Schenectady ARC, Schenectady County Public Health and Ellis Medicine and is funded by AstraZeneca HealthCare Foundation.
Currently, the vegetables given to those in the HealthShares program include fresh parsley, oregano, scallions, kale, purple kale, cucumbers, leaf lettuce, beet greens, chives, head lettuce, broccoli, garlic scapes and tomatoes.
“It is just going to expand from there,” Kolankowski said.
The amount of food each participating family receives depends on several factors. The main two factors are the size of the family and the amount of vegetables the program has on a given day to give out. Participants in the program are given a recipes each week based on the vegetables provided as well as a reusable bag that they bring back each time.
Michelle Keyser peeked in her mother’s bag before they left.
“Wait … there is broccoli,” she said. “I love broccoli!”
Tammy Keyser said if it was not for this program, she could not afford fresh vegetables.
“We buy the canned vegetables,” she said. “Fresh vegetables we do not buy because I have a family of four. It is just too expensive. Way too expensive.”
Schubel explained that when the participants fill out their enrollment paperwork for the HealthShares program, they are asked why they do not regularly eat vegetables. And the answer is almost always the same.
“So many people say that it costs too much,” Schubel said. “So this is a great service for them.”