By Terrence M. Shirley, MPH, CEO, Community Health Center Association of Mississippi
Food is medicine is a mantra of providers promoting good health. Some providers have prescribed fresh fruits and vegetables formally and informally because nutrition matters. While the fields may yield an abundance of crops, getting those crops to people who live in food deserts presents challenges. Farmers’ markets help expand fresh produce access if there are no grocery stores, but many times it is hard to get to one or both if neither exists nearby. And if you can get to market, consumers pay a premium for those wholesome foods.
One of our health center members, ACCESS Family Health Center in Smithville, Mississippi, has taken steps to address these three issues with the bottom line of getting fresh, nutritious food onto the tables of its community members. Marilyn Sumerford, executive director at ACCESS, set up a farmers’ market, known as the Farmacy (a farm and a place to obtain medicine) that runs from June till the end of October in Smithville.
Open to all, ACCESS makes sure every one of its patients can afford to buy the produce. ACCESS distributes tokens to patients who use the sliding fee scale when they visit a provider. The patients also use tokens to buy fresh produce at the ACCESS Farmacy. The vendors accept the tokens for payment, and then ACCESS pays vendors for the tokens they turn in.
To showcase innovative produce marketing and delivery, I invited one of the farmers’ market vendors to come to the Community Health Center Association of Mississippi’s (CHCAMS) annual conference to set up shop. Michael Lane, owner of Lane Farms in Plantersville, MS, traveled with his produce stand all the way to Jackson. The produce stand travels in an iconic decommissioned Big Yellow School Bus as a mobile market. Lane Farms is a regular vendor at the ACCESS Farmacy, but their mobile market travels to other farmers’ markets in the area to help grow their business and increase access to fresh foods. Mr. Lane, and his wife Nikki, know there is an unmet need in these communities in and around Plantersville, where there are few, if any, full-service grocery stores.
Cooking recipes with healthy ingredients is essential. A clinical dietician, Ms. Sumerford sold copies of The Farmacy’s Prescription for Healthier Eating community cookbook at the CHCAMS conference. While a community cookbook in Mississippi is nothing new, this version has a specific purpose…provide recipes that taste good using healthier ingredients with the produce sold at the Farmacy. The community “ate it up,” so to speak.
Conference attendees and Jackson residents had the opportunity to visit the Lane Farms mobile market just outside of the convention center located downtown.
I also wanted to make sure that people in the area experiencing homelessness would also be able to access the fresh produce. I committed our association to purchasing any remaining produce items from Lane Farms on the bus that day to donate to a local organization that feeds the homeless.
Is this innovation unique to Mississippi? It certainly can be scaled here at home and in other communities nationwide. We have the framework to guide others and encourage those interested to reach out. Thanks to Marilyn Sumerford and her team and Michael and Nikki Lane of Lane Farms for inspiring other health center leaders in Mississippi with creative solutions to address community needs and the health of the community.
The Community Health Center Association of Mississippi (formerly the Mississippi Primary Health Care Association) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) membership organization comprised of 21 Community Health Centers providing quality comprehensive healthcare in accredited medical homes. Member health centers provide care to over 311,000 patients within 265 sites throughout Mississippi’s underserved communities. Community Health Centers generate more than a quarter of a billion dollars per capita to our state’s economy. For more than forty years, CHCAMS has provided its members with exceptional training, technical support, and advocacy at the state and federal levels.