Refugees in Utah face poor nutrition; doctors and farmers prescribe collaborative response

Story and photo by DANNY O’MALLEY

A national program that provides fresh produce to refugee patients in need of nutrition has arrived in Salt Lake City. VeggieRx, also known as the Fruits and Vegetables Prescription project (FVRx), empowers doctors to prescribe wholesome nutrition in the form of fresh farmers market produce to refugees at risk of malnutrition or other health concerns like diabetes.

At St. Mark’s Family Medicine, in the Millcreek area of Salt Lake City, patients receive prescriptions for $10 toward fresh produce. They take the prescriptions just down the street to the Sunnyvale Farmers Market, to be used up to four times. The market also accepts SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which can double the amount of vegetables carried home by refugee patients. The Sunnyvale Farmers Market, an endeavor of the International Rescue Committee through its New Roots farming initiative, is open on Saturday afternoons from July to October every year.

Refugees who are newly resettled face a myriad of challenges, but nutrition and diet are often the most pressing.

Ze Min Xiao, director of the mayor’s Office of New Americans in Salt Lake County, said even the idea of a supermarket can be a challenge to newcomers. Often when a refugee arrives, “suddenly they’re buying processed food, and it’s more expensive and not as good for you. Obesity and lack of vitamins are a problem,” she said.

The transition to the American diet and food culture can be jarring for some. Many refugees struggle to find food they recognize. Familiar ingredients may grow plentifully in other regions around the world, but varieties here in Utah may be nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

For example, according to cost of living data collected by Numbeo.com, fruit and vegetable prices are anywhere between two and 10 times greater in the United States than in Syria and Somalia. And that’s just for ubiquitous produce like apples, oranges and potatoes — anything remotely exotic is exponentially less likely to be carried by local grocers.

Because of programs like VeggieRx, farming initiatives like New Roots and medical outreach through St. Marks, the avenues to help alleviate issues of nutrition and unfamiliar culture are opening wider. The innovative practice of prescribing access to vegetables packed with nutrients is a direct result of addressing the needs of the refugee community, Xiao said. “We can identify some answers they bring as New Americans,” she added.

Similar programs are already coming to fruition all over the country. VeggieRx was started by Wholesome Wave, an organization centered on increasing accessibility to nutrition and health resources. First piloted in Maine and Massachusetts in 2010, the success on the East Coast has allowed Wholesome Wave to partner with organizations in 48 states as of this writing, as well as Washington, D.C., and the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area.

Fiona McBride, senior communications associate for Wholesome Wave, has been with the organization since 2014. “We’re really proud of our growth and impact,” she said in a phone interview. “In 2015, we helped about 150,000 people. In 2016, we reached over 550,000.” She expects that growth trend to continue.

The benefit doesn’t stop at the limit of the prescription value either. Refugees and other low-income families are more likely to buy lots of veggies once they get a little, giving an economic boost to the farmers at the market. “We’ve seen that for every $5 in vouchers, they spend an additional $15 on fresh produce,” McBride said. “Our case workers have said that the families can’t believe what they’re getting.”

Patients in greatest need of nutrition are often children. “It’s really powerful to tackle and prevent problems with diet and health starting young,” McBride said.

St. Mark’s Family Medicine is a program with the Utah Healthcare Institute. Diane Chapman, a nurse practitioner involved with the program, said the link between diet and chronic disease can’t be emphasized enough. The majority of patients she sees are refugees. “It’s my primary professional focus and passion,” she said in a phone interview. Often, she said, clinicians have “little context” for a diet that refugee patients might be familiar with. “Dietary change can be difficult for anyone.”

The VeggieRx pilot provided the opportunity for refugee families to align their diet with food similar to that of their countries of origin, at little to no cost. The pilot ran from September to October 2017, through the end of the farmers market season. Chapman said the program goal was to enroll at least 50 patients, which was met, and now the data can be assessed by the Utah Department of Health.

According to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, healthcare costs related to diet are over $950 billion a year. This is especially dangerous for low-income families including refugees.

Fiona McBride said that’s what the VeggieRx program is all about — spending less on healthcare by treating preventable diseases through nutrition. “We’re really trying to show the power of produce to improve personal and environmental health. The money we save in avoiding extremely expensive health problems could transform the country,” she said.

Utah’s pilot of the program is in its infancy, so the exact impact is yet to be seen at the local level. But it has a huge pool of organizers invested in seeing it thrive. The International Rescue Committee, the Utah Department of Health, Salt Lake County and St. Mark’s Family Medicine have made good headway together. Thanks to everyone involved, refugees can eat healthy and avoid burdensome long-term healthcare costs.

Keep your eyes peeled for updates from the Utah Department of Health in early 2018.

Refugees planting new roots in Utah

Story by SCOTT FUNK

War. Persecution. Death. Three things that many people in other countries across the world have to face on a daily basis. They go through life living in their homeland in fear. They’re left with two options: Stay in the country and risk death, or flee for survival. Many choose to stay, but many choose to become refugees.

Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services and a Somali refugee himself, said, “Becoming a refugee is the most difficult process a human being can go through. When you’re in your country, you either face the hard condition of leaving, or you die. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but when you don’t have a choice, you just want a new place to survive.”

According to a letter to Gov. Gary Herbert included in the Utah Refugee Services Office 2016 report, 1,200 refugees have been resettled in Utah annually by the CCS and International Rescue Committee.

The refugees who are resettled in Utah can choose from different programs to help them adapt to a new culture. One option is the New Roots Program, organized and managed by the IRC.

The New Roots program has the moto: “The food is local. The story is global.” Its purpose, according to the website, is to “enable refugees to celebrate their heritage and nourish themselves and their neighbors by planting strong roots – literally – in their new communities.”

The program consists of three parts: Community Gardening, Micro-Training Farm Program and the Sunnyvale Farmers Market.

Community Gardening Program

This program is designed to help the emotional well-being of the refugees as they try to adjust to a new country, culture and way of life.

Central Park 1. Photo credit New Roots SLC

In this program, plots of land (approximately 14 feet by 20 feet for 100 total square feet) are reserved for local refugees and their families throughout the Salt Lake community to grow crops from their home country and to come together as a community. Alex Haas, community garden program coordinator, said it is their opportunity to not only work, but also to provide for their family while connecting with others who may come from the same circumstance. There are 15 different gardens throughout the valley that refugees have access to.

Also within this program, Haas said, is the opportunity to meet as a group to develop skills and become accustomed to the new society they are in. Within these adjustment groups refugees can discuss their feelings, learn skills such as how to deal with anger, stress, depression and ultimately become self-sustained as they build a new home.

“The purpose of our community gardening program and adjustment groups is to help refugees become self-sustaining moving forward,” Haas said.

He also said in a phone interview that the gardens are a way to remind refugees of home and that they give them “a sense of comfort, while they enjoy cultural foods, and while they build a community of wellness.”

Micro-Training Farm Program

The next step in the New Roots program is the farming aspect. After resettled refugees have participated in the community gardens for a year, they have an opportunity to work on larger plots of lands at the Redwood Road Micro-Training Farm, located at 3060 S. Lester St. in West Valley City, to continue their farming.

Local refugee farming at the Redwood Farm. Photo credit New Roots SLC

Jordan Bryant, manager of the IRC’s New Roots program, said in a phone interview that the farm is maintained by generous grants and donations. The farmers pay different amounts for seeds and plants from their heritage, and tools to grow them to bring their home to Utah.

Currently, Bryant said, there are about 33 farmers who are there on a constant basis. These farmers, each of whom were once strangers, develop a community with one another as they work together to grow and sell their crops at local farmer’s market.

Although it is not the main source of income for their families, the refugees rely on the farming as a source of income for their families. At the same time, they continue to develop relationships and friendships with the other refugees around them.

“It’s more than just a job,” Bryant said. “It’s that they gain access to their home and people to socialize with.”

Sunnyvale Farmers Market

Local refugees buying produce at the Sunnyvale Farmers Market. Photo credit New Roots SLC

The Sunnyvale Farmers Market, located at 4013 S. 700 West in Salt Lake City, gives the refugee farmers the opportunity to provide for their family by taking the food they grow and selling it.  It is also an opportunity to bring food from cultures around the world to the refugee community.

“The farmers market is a great opportunity for income,” Bryant said. “Although it’s not their main source of income, for some it does provide a substantial amount for their family. It also is a community benefit by providing food from the countries of the refugees that are in the community.”

Escaping persecution is a long journey. But after choosing to leave their home to survive, the New Roots program has given refugees the opportuntiy to bring a piece of their culture to Utah.