A transformation is taking place at Family Health Center in Orangeburg that is helping to change attitudes about food.
Every Friday, the green space by the health center’s north parking lot is occupied by tables of bright yellow and green squash, baskets of fragrant peaches, piles of melons and just about every color of tomato under the sun — all locally grown and sold by South Carolina farmers.
Hundreds of people come to the center for more than just their routine checkup. Patients, health center staff and Orangeburg residents mingle around the tables — talking, laughing and asking farmers about prices and cooking suggestions.
It’s all part of a new approach to preventative health care by Family Health Centers Inc., a federally-qualified health center, and the University of South Carolina’s Cancer Prevention and Control Research Network.
Darcy Freedman, a professor of social work at USC and principal investigator of the Right Choice, Fresh Start Farmers’ Market study, says the idea for the market came from research that shows a relationship between access to fresh produce and health outcomes.
“This is a way to provide basic preventative health care services — in an outside-the-box way,” Freedman said.
The market began its first season during the summer of 2011 with grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The first-year goals included both increasing access to fresh, healthy foods to improve diet in an area riddled with poverty and diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, and increasing demand for produce grown by local farmers.
Researchers and Family Health Center officials found the project exceeded expectations. Area farmers earned about $15,000 in revenue last year. The profits were encouraging for farmers such as Alvin Pair of Orangeburg, but that wasn’t the only reason he has returned to the market this year.
“Every week I get to interact with all the people; it’s very enjoyable,” Pair said. “If there’s a need for me, I’ll continue to be here.”
Market manager Sylvia Ellis of Orangeburg quickly realized the impact of the market on farmers like Pair and the people of her hometown.
“My first day at the market was such a surprise; I didn’t realize the magnitude of people that visit the market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables,” Ellis said. “I look forward to every Friday assisting the farmers and the community and making sure their visit was a pleasant one so they will want to return again.”
It’s the people who are most important to the life of the market, Freedman said. After hearing positive feedback from customers, the market is trying to reach out to even more community members, particularly those shopping with federal food subsidies. This year, with the help of an additional grant, the market will give out free $5 matching coupons to customers who spend $5 or more in SNAP/EBT, WIC and Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program Vouchers. So far, more than 200 people have enrolled in the “Shop N Save” program, and the market has given out more than $1,000 in coupons to shoppers young and old.
It seems to be serving its purpose, especially for shoppers like Alithia Glover, a resident of Roosevelt Gardens, a housing complex directly behind the family health center. She heard about the market through the Boys and Girls Club, where she often goes with her 8-year-old son. She used her first Shop N Save coupon to buy a watermelon that her son had been eyeing. Having grown up with a garden, she said she knows the produce is good and will be returning for more vegetables every week.
“Fresh produce isn’t something you get every day,” Glover said. “A lot of people don’t know that it’s much healthier than canned. It gives you more energy and more nutrition, I got to use that discount, and everyone was really kind and we had very good service. What a fabulous market.”
Family Health Centers CEO Leon Brunson has also noticed the difference the market has made for both staff and patients. Last summer, FHC started seeing a steady increase in patients — about 300 more per month. He attributes the increase to the market, which in combination with the services at FHC, address two common shortages in Orangeburg County — healthy foods and health care.
“A lot of people don’t eat fresh fruits and vegetables simply because they can’t afford it,” Brunson said. “Here, they have an opportunity to purchase produce at a reasonable cost.”
Brunson has been heavily promoting the market as a key component of health care services. He aims not only to keep the market going for years to come in Orangeburg, but to eventually spur the opening of markets at Family Health Centers’ five other locations in South Carolina.
“I personally hope we have a farmers’ market every Friday at each of our offices,” Brunson said. “We’re hoping we have the ability to sustain this for the long term because I see a benefit and our patients see benefits. Most of all, our farmers see a benefit. Some farmers out at the market are our patients, so you have patients getting the opportunity to sell to other patients. When you get that going on, you have an economy being created. That’s a win-win situation.”