A Mobile Food Market Brings Healthy Food to At-Risk Families

Thanks to a new collaboration between NewYork-Presbyterian and West Side Campaign Against Hunger, at-risk families in Washington Heights have access to free, healthy foods.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Jennifer, a patient at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Washington Heights Family Health Center, went shopping at a mobile food market on 181st Street. She filled her pushcart with everything her family of four needs for healthy meals: milk, eggs, bread, rice, peanut butter, pasta, beans, fresh corn, grapes, apples, peaches, heads of broccoli, cucumbers, onions, potatoes, carrots, and an eggplant.

“What I like about coming here is that everything is fresh, everything is healthy, and it’s good for us,” Jennifer says. “There’s stuff I don’t buy in the supermarket that I get here. It’s really good.”

The cost to Jennifer? Nothing. Everything she took home was free.

The food was available through Food FARMacia, a mobile food market for at-risk members of the Washington Heights community. The program is a collaboration between NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network, Choosing Healthy and Active Lifestyles for Kids (CHALK), NewYork-Presbyterian’s obesity prevention program, which fosters healthy lifestyle choices for kids, and the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, a nonprofit that works to alleviate hunger. The mobile food market is open every other Tuesday, rain or shine, and is right outside the front door of the Washington Heights Family Health Center.

Food FARMacia was launched as a six-month pilot program in June 2019 after staff at the Washington Heights Family Health Center — part of NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network — found that nearly 30% of the families with young children who came to the clinic said they couldn’t always afford food, approximately twice the citywide rate. To date, 42 families have been registered, translating to approximately 190 individuals. Families take home between 25 to 30 pounds of food at each visit, and the program has given away around 6,500 pounds of food since the launch.

“Recognizing that food insecurity is the biggest issue for the young children in our clinic and their families, we decided we needed to design an intervention,” explains Davina Prabhu, vice president of the Ambulatory Care Network in the Division of Community and Population Health at NewYork-Presbyterian. “But we’re not just here for that one intervention or one-time interaction with our patients. We’re here so we can help reduce or prevent health disparities. That’s why we teamed up with the West Side Campaign Against Hunger to provide a regular mobile food market.”

Prabhu says her team in the Division of Community and Population Health focuses on the social needs of the community because everyone’s health and well-being relies on having basic needs met, like housing, transportation, and food. Families that qualify for the Food FARMacia program are able to choose from a wide variety of both dry goods and fresh fruits and vegetables. At the truck, patients, some alone, some with their children in tow, shop as if they are in a grocery store, with the freedom to pick the items they want.

“I was in their shoes as a little kid…to be able to give back a little to the community and be able to offer a program like this has been incredible.”

— JC Alejaldre

“When you’re talking about eating healthier and changing your lifestyle, your environment needs to support it, and access to healthy food is a huge part of that,” says Emma Hulse, CHALK program manager, pointing out that Food FARMacia improves access by bringing food to people where they are as opposed to having them travel to pick it up. “The whole experience is about how we can treat people with respect. We want to make sure they feel supported and are getting the resources they need in a dignified way.”

JC Alejaldre, the practice administrator at the NewYork-Presbyterian Specialty Practices who was instrumental in bringing this program together, understands as well as anyone the need for programs like Food FARMacia.

“I was that child with that mom, that single mom who was struggling to get by,” Alejaldre says of his own childhood experience with food insecurity. “I was in their shoes as a little kid, with my mom trying to make ends meet and figure out how we are going to pay for food. To be able to give back a little to the community and be able to offer a program like this has been incredible.”

Patients who arrive in the clinic and register for the first time are invited to provide information about social needs that affect their health and well-being. The receptionist gives them a tablet computer with a questionnaire to help the clinical staff understand what their non-healthcare-related needs are, known as “social determinants of health.” If the patient has children who are newborns to age 5 and they have food insecurity, they can register to shop at Food FARMacia.

“When kids don’t have healthy or enough food in the house, there can be health consequences like obesity, problems with attention or behavior, or delayed growth,” says Dr. Dodi Meyer, director of community pediatrics at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. She notes that households that don’t have enough money to buy healthy groceries often eat foods that are not rich in nutrients, which can lead to obesity. “Research shows that if we address social determinants of health during clinical encounters, we are more likely to improve the health and well-being of the population served. We are not only taking care of their physical needs, but their holistic needs too, and food is at the core of that.”

Cooking demo at the mobile food market

A cooking demo using ingredients available that day.

Just as at a grocery store, the produce at Food FARMacia will change based on what’s in season, so NewYork-Presbyterian has a nutritionist on hand to provide a cooking demo using ingredients available that day. At a table set up on the sidewalk a few yards away from the food truck, Kyle Murray, a registered dietitian and community nutrition specialist for CHALK, recently made a Middle Eastern-inspired salad, with cucumber, tomato, red wine vinegar, olive oil, dill, and a pinch of salt. He put samples in small paper cups next to flyers with that day’s recipe, which were available for participants and anyone who walked by.

Though a pilot program now, NewYork-Presbyterian hopes to continue to use social determinants of health screening data to target other areas where patients experience high rates of food insecurity and expand this program not only in Manhattan but also across communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and Westchester.

In addition to the mobile food market, CHALK has a program in which patients who are found to be food insecure by their primary care provider can receive $20 in vouchers, called “Green Market Bucks,” to spend at three farmers markets in northern Manhattan. In addition, during summer, youth from local high schools where CHALK works run a weekly farm stand that’s open to the public in front of the Broadway Practice in Inwood, a primary care practice that’s part of NewYork-Presbyterian’s Ambulatory Care Network. NewYork-Presbyterian also helps connect patients to federal public benefits programs that can help address their nutritional needs on a longer-term basis, including WIC (Women’s, Infants, and Children) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

Collectively, these links to healthy food are important, Hulse says, because one of the goals of this program is sustainability, which will hopefully lead to fewer patients and their families in northern Manhattan facing food insecurity.

Jennifer, the patient who picked up a couple of dozen pounds of food, couldn’t wait to get home and boil the fresh corn, her family’s favorite preparation, and dig into the eggplant, an ingredient she had never used before coming to Food FARMacia.

“The first time I came here and they gave me an eggplant I was like, ‘I don’t eat that. I’ve never cooked that,’” she recalls. “And they told me I can fry it or put it in salad. So I went home, sliced it and fried it, and it tasted really good.”

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