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By Les Gura

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared May 2014]

It didn’t take long for Cynthia Pierson, a resident of Lugar Tower in downtown Indianapolis to get excited about Garden on the Go®, a truck that would come to her building every week offering fresh fruits and vegetables.

Pierson had grown up on a farm, but since losing her legs to diabetes and having to cope with three-times-a-week dialysis, her transportation and time options to get to a market were limited.

gog_logo“From the get-go, I was like ‘Oh, this is going to be great. I’ll be able to fortify my meal with the freshness of fruits and vegetables,’” she says. “It was going to be a win-win situation, at least on my part.’’

This month, Garden on the Go celebrates its third anniversary, having changed its concept from transactions occurring directly on the truck to a farmers market style set up inside 19 different locations and averaging more than 550 customers weekly. Since it launched in May 2011, Garden on the Go has had over 56,000 customer transactions and sold nearly 250 tons of fresh, affordable produce in neighborhoods in need of healthier food options.

Get to the Root Causes

The program was created by Indiana University Health (IU Health) as part of an effort by its Department of Community Outreach and Engagement to develop a more comprehensive obesity prevention strategy.

“We were looking at what could be different initiatives that would have more far-reaching impact,’’ says Lisa Cole, manager of Indianapolis Community Outreach for IU Health. “We wanted to get to the root causes in our more under-resourced communities here in the Marion County area of Indiana. These areas do not have access to affordable healthy food.’’

Cole says it is difficult when health providers make recommendations to people to change their diets – in particular asking them to eat more fruits and vegetables – when those foods are not always readily available.

“We felt we needed to provide those foods and at a price our customers could afford,” Cole says. “So we came up with a not-for-profit/for-profit program model that enables us to deliver on that strategy year-round.”

Working with a mobile grocer who had access to produce distributors, IU Health was able to set up the program and begin providing fresh produce it believes can lead to health changes in those who take advantage. “Research tells us that just by eating one to two more servings fruits and vegetables a day, a person can reduce their risk for heart disease by 4 percent,“ Cole says.

She doesn’t have to convince Pierson, who says she spends about $9 a week at Garden on the Go, buying just enough to last her until the arrival of the mobile store the next Wednesday afternoon.

Pierson enjoys onions, potatoes, carrots and other more seasonal vegetables and fruits, such as green beans and strawberries.

“There’s not too many of the vegetables that they carry I don’t like; I just have to watch them, being on dialysis and with the potassium,’’ Pierson says.

A Vehicle of Population Health

Garden on the Go also has resulted in broader learning and benefits for both provider and customers.

Cole says IU Health has learned that the weekly format gives a good audience for other health initiatives. For example:

  • Last fall, free flu shots were offered at Garden on the Go stops as a pilot program, with the local health department providing the vaccines at no charge after providing the vaccines.
  • Every other month, Garden on the Go partners with other organizations to do food and cooking demonstrations for healthy meals.
  • For its 3rd anniversary this month, Garden on the Go is providing free blood pressure screenings.

“What we’re now recognizing is Garden on the Go has the potential to become IU Health’s ‘vehicle’ for population health because we have people in the community coming to us on a weekly basis,”  says Cole. “We’re able to learn from them in the community, we’ve found they’re very willing to talk with us and willing to take advantage of health services we may offer through Garden on the Go.”

A six-month study of the program showed that the Garden on the Go population in Marion County has a high chronic disease burden, yet more than 60 percent of the respondents said their health was good or fairly good.

“And yet these are individuals who are diabetic, have high blood pressure , or smoke,’’ Cole says. “They don’t have the same definition of good health as some would say, but the reality is they say it is. That was an important thing for us to learn. In order to get people to a good health status, we need to find out what good health means to this population.

“A research study is currently underway between IU Health, the Fairbanks School of Public Health and Herron School of Art to study Garden on the Go customers and their perceptions of  good health and healthy eating,” says Cole.

Garden on the Go: Bringing Neighbors Together

For Pierson, Garden on the Go offers one other unspoken benefit.

garden on the go screen shot“It gives everybody a chance to meet their neighbors,’’ she says. “You can meet the people that live in your community that you may not get the chance to know.

These days, it’s easy for people with a busy lifestyle to go to a grocery store freezer and get prepared foods by popping something in the microwave. Some folks even call that “homemade,’’ Pierson says, because they cooked it at home.

By bringing neighbors together, she says, Garden on the Go participants are able to pass down the knowledge and treasured recipes of an older generation. She’s one of those who enjoys sharing her cooking secrets and learning some new tricks.

“I cook mainly from scratch, I always have,’’ Pierson says. “That’s the way I was raised.”

Visit the Garden on the Go webpage.