Despite the known health benefits of fruits and vegetables, most Americans are not eating enough of them in their daily diet. Lahey Health wants to change that.
It’s 8:30 on a Tuesday morning and there’s a buzz of excitement at the Council on Aging (COA) in Billerica, Mass. Today is “garlic day,” and garlic is one of the featured vegetables coming in to the senior center during the mobile farmers market. Dozens of women 60 and older — and a few men — sit at tables, sipping coffee and sharing recipes, often referring to those in the newsletter distributed by COA staff and volunteers.
They are at the senior center for week three of the Eat Fresh Program, a 20-week program made possible by Lahey Hospital & Medical Center and the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project. Based in Lowell, Mass., the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is a farmer training organization. The program brings fresh produce, grown by New Entry farmers, to seniors who lack access to these items or may not be able to afford them.
“Lahey is very community driven and looks at health holistically. Instead of just treating disease, they try to prevent it. Their community benefits needs assessment showed that seniors are not getting enough fresh fruits and vegetables, and Lahey responded,” said Jean Patel Bushnell, Billerica COA director. “I’m grateful that Lahey is constantly in the community, understanding what’s happening with our health and wellness and proactively responding.”
“We started this program four years ago at the Burlington (Mass.) Council on Aging in direct response to our needs assessment data and expanded it to the Arlington COA the following year,” said Michelle Snyder, Regional Manager, Community Benefits, Lahey Health. “We have seen beneficial impacts for participants and are thrilled to be able to bring the program to Billerica this year.”
But, fresh produce is only one of the positive aspects of the program. “What’s almost as important is the opportunity for seniors to have this great social time. You come in here and get together and swap a few stories, make a few friends,” said Karen Cousack-Bouvier, Billerica COA outreach coordinator. “The focus of a lot of what we do at the senior center is to help folks meet their needs on every level – emotionally and socially and, with this program, nutritionally.”
After the produce arrives fresh-picked from the local farms, volunteers unload and set it up on a long table. Each senior is given a number when signing in, and the numbers are called to let each know when it is his or her turn at the table. In addition to garlic, today’s group of nearly 60 seniors received fresh lettuce, carrots, cherry tomatoes, summer squash, zucchini, onions and more.
Walter Magner, who has attended since the program’s inception, spoke highly of the mobile market. “I love it. My wife cooks and I eat, so that works very well. The produce is delicious,” he said.
“It’s a wonderful program on many levels of health: connect, eat right, and be happy,” Bushnell said.
For information on programs that Lahey Hospital & Medical Center provides to the community, visit our website.