Food is medicine

FoodShare South Carolina provides access to fresh produce and cooking skills

Food can make a person really healthy or really sick. Ask Beverly Wilson.

Wilson is co-founder and director of FoodShare South Carolina, a University of South Carolina program that works to expand access to fresh produce and nutrition education for low-income families in the Columbia area.

“As an employee of the medical school for 18 years, I’ve had opportunity to see patients come in who are struggling with diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Wilson. “Those diseases, as well as obesity, are lifestyle driven and can be directly impacted by what we’re putting in our mouths.”

But two obstacles can deter people from a healthy diet, according to Wilson: Fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive, and people don’t always have the cooking knowledge or skills to prepare nutritious, tasty meals.

Wilson launched the program with Carrie Draper, director of policy and partnership development with Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities in the Arnold School of Public Health, after determining that buying and distributing bulk produce would be an effective way to help low-income families access healthy food.

Large boxes of produce purchased through FoodShare cost $20, but participants who are part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can pay $10 and have another $10 matched by the S.C. Healthy Bucks Program.

The partnership between physicians and FoodShare is allowing us to shift our focus from simply treating disease toward caring for the whole person.

Beverly Wilson, co-founder and director of FoodShare South Carolina

Since the program began in April 2015, FoodShare staff and volunteers have packed and distributed more than 448,000 pounds of fresh food from the South Carolina State Farmers Market to families, the majority of whom are low-income and SNAP eligible. That’s more than 21,000 boxes packed with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, squash, bananas, strawberries and other fresh produce.

The program recently received a grant from the Central Carolina Community Foundation to renovate space in the Save-A-Lot grocery store located within a public housing development on Harden Street in Columbia. FoodShare used 4,000 square feet of space to build a 20-station commercial kitchen where families enroll in 8-week culinary medicine cooking course.

“As a culture, we don’t cook from scratch anymore. Those skills are not being handed down like they used to be and many families don’t know the basics,” Wilson says. “So we teach patients how to use fresh food to manage their chronic disease and nourish their bodies. We use a curriculum from Tulane University that aims to align the South’s most beloved traditional cuisine with a healthy diet. Instead of taking away foods, we tweak recipes that our patients enjoy, such as baked ‘fried’ chicken and garlic chipotle collard greens with low sodium levels.”

Now, a $275,000 grant from the Duke Endowment will allow the program to focus both on patients and on the physicians, residents and medical students who interact with patients. If a patient comes in with uncontrolled blood sugars, or is overweight, or has high blood pressure, the health care provider can ask if they have difficulty accessing healthy food and then direct them to FoodShare.

“Within the Palmetto Health/USC Medical Group, we have a network of clinicians who see patients who say, ‘I can’t afford food’ or ‘I don’t know what to do with it,’” Wilson explains. “We see an opportunity to train physicians and empower them with resources that allow the patient to care for themselves.”

“The physician doesn’t have time to teach the patient how to cook lower sodium or lower carbohydrate meals to manage their hypertension or diabetes. Once the physician makes a referral, the FoodShare team explains the Fresh Food Box Program and enrolls the patient in an 8-week culinary medicine course that uses hands-on experience to teach food as medicine.”

Wilson credits the strong support from the USC School of Medicine and the Palmetto Health/USC Medical Group with helping the program to expand beyond providing healthy produce. The program is now looking closer at disease prevention and lifestyle changes as well.

“Our clinicians understand that food significantly impacts health. They have a unique relationship with patients and an increased measure of influence that can be helpful when trying to encourage a patient to change their lifestyle,” she says. “The partnership between physicians and FoodShare is allowing us to shift our focus from simply treating disease toward caring for the whole person.”

Learn more

Learn how you can help provide access to fresh produce and healthy cooking skills through the FoodShare program.

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