St. Luke's Hospital partners with Feed Iowa First to provide fresh produce to low-income patients

Program offered from 9 to 11 a.m. every Wednesday throughout the summer

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Bunches of leafy green kale, white Japanese eggplants and multicolored heirloom tomatoes: all items you’d expect to see at the Cedar Rapids Downtown Farmers’ Market — not at a local hospital.

But every Wednesday morning that fresh produce sits outside UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital for patients to pick up, take home and eat. And it’s free of charge.

“We’re really just trying to share with the community — to connect with people,” said Jennifer Owens, a social worker at UnityPoint Health Clinics in Cedar Rapids. “Patients visit with us and we can start a relationship.”

The program, which Owens started in the summer of 2015, was created to fill a need. Social workers help connect patients to needed resources outside the four walls of a hospital — transportation, housing and financial assistance programs.

Patients who have diabetes or heart issues are encouraged to make healthy changes to their diets in addition to whatever medications they’re prescribed. But for those struggling to pay rent and bills every month, there isn’t always room in their budgets for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I could send people to Matthew 25, which sells produce for 50 percent off, and some of the food pantries distribute fresh food when they get it,” she said. “But there wasn’t a program where I could say, go there and get fresh fruit and vegetables.”

So Owens decided to build her own.

She partnered with Sonia Kendrick, executive director of Feed Iowa First. The not-for-profit grows and distributes fresh produce throughout the state to the elderly, low-income and other needy Iowans.

Feed Iowa First partners with local businesses and churches to grow produce that is delivered to local food banks and other not-for-profits.

Owens picks up 200 to 300 pounds of produce each week from Feed Iowa First and also invites UnityPoint Health staff to donate produce from their own gardens. She sets up a produce stand at St. Luke’s Hospital from 9 to 11 a.m. every Wednesday throughout the summer.

There are no income restrictions and individuals do not have to receive care at the hospital to pick up produce, she said. Owens distributes whatever is left over to local agencies and subsidized housing around Cedar Rapids, including the Catherine McAuley Center, Bridgehaven, Foundation II, Westover Manor, Geneva Tower, Oak Hill Manor and St. Vincent de Paul.

About a dozen people show up each Wednesday to take advantage of the produce, Owens said, and she’s working on growing the program by posting fliers in UnityPoint Clinics, at free clinics and the Heritage Area Agency on Aging. The goal is to “swim up the stream,” she said, and help people live healthier lives so they can stay out of the hospitals in the future.

“It’s not about scarcity to these foods, it’s about access,” she said. “We’re promoting better health for people and giving people the opportunity to make better choices.”

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