By Pam Marino
San Jose pediatrician Daniel Delgado has a big problem. His young patients – all from low-income families – are overweight or obese and in danger of developing diabetes. Many don’t have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables vital for better nutrition. How to connect his patients with the foods they so desperately need?
Delgado is hoping that some of that need will be met through monthly visits from Second Harvest Food Bank’s Produce Mobile to the East Valley Clinic of the Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center. The refrigerated truck is full of free, fresh produce reserved for qualified low-income families. It made its first-ever appearance at the clinic on Saturday, June 12 and will return the second Saturday morning of each month.
“It’s the very first county clinic site where this type of collaboration is happening,” Delgado said. “It’s groundbreaking.” He said he is very pleased that the clinic can now connect healthy food to patients at the same place they receive health care.
An estimated 200 families lined up to take advantage of the truck’s bounty on the first visit, including Beatrice Romero and her 10-year-old son, Sanny. Romero came at the invitation of a doctor at the clinic.
“I think it’s very good for my children and my money,” Romero said. “It’s a help.”
As Director of the Pediatric Healthy Lifestyles Center, Delgado spent two years working with officials from Second Harvest and Santa Clara County to make his vision of providing the fruits and vegetables to the clinic’s patients. Several obstacles had to be overcome, including the untangling of some bureaucratic red tape.
Cindy McCown, Second Harvest senior director of programs and services, called their joint effort a “wonderful example of public and private partnership,” bringing together a county agency, a non-profit organization, and local churches.
The produce is donated to Second Harvest by local farmers, the California Association of Food Banks and Feeding America. In some cases the food bank pays for shipping of the produce, or they may pay farmers pennies per pound.
“This is food that would have been dumped,” McCown said at the event, pointing to dozens of boxes of various produce. As an example, she showed off nearly perfect hot house tomatoes that were blemished on their tops, making them unmarketable in stores.
Selection of produce varies by season; on the first clinic visit the selection included oranges, carrots, potatoes, bananas, nectarines and cherries. Simple to prepare recipes are provided in different languages, to give clients ideas about how to use the food.
Second Harvest has two donated trucks in the program, which was started in 2006. An estimated 32,000 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties benefit, McCown said. The trucks – brightly decorated with enticing photos of fresh food on the sides – visit a total of 49 sites, including schools, a dental clinic, a soup kitchen and churches.
Usually the agencies and organizations Second Harvest partner with have volunteers who can help oversee the produce distribution at each of the sites. But the East Valley Clinic does not have the people power, McCown said, which became a hurdle for bringing a truck there.
To overcome that issue, McCown turned to Second Harvest board member Pat Plant, who is also the Hunger Action Enabler for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and The Presbytery of San Jose. Plant found five churches willing to provide 22 volunteers to work at the clinic every month.
The partnership between the clinic and Second Harvest sprouted from a severe need that Delgado and fellow doctors see daily at the clinic. More than 30 percent of the children served by the East Valley Clinic are overweight. Most have developed insulin resistance or pre-diabetes and need fresh produce for the fiber and nutrients that will prevent them from developing diabetes in the future.
“People look at an overweight person and they think they are a glutton and are eating too much,” Delgado told me. “That’s not true. There’s a huge disparity in what people eat and how they eat.”
Some of the issues facing Delgado’s patients include things like “food insecurity,” which means being insecure about access to food due to lack of money. This can lead to things like hoarding food or overeating when there is access, and buying lower cost and lower quality food. Second Harvest officials also point to “food deserts” or entire low-income sections of cities where there is little or no access to large supermarkets that carry fresh, high quality produce at lower prices.
Delgado said there are grocery stores in East San Jose, but he called the produce available “suboptimal.” He also said that families already strapped for cash will hesitate to buy fresh vegetables out of a fear that their kids won’t eat them, meaning the money will be wasted. He hopes that the access to free produce will take away that worry, “and that will improve habits,” he said.
It’s also very common that at certain times of the month, families might not have the money to purchase food. The clinic’s doctors often refer patients to Second Harvest, which provides free food to families that qualify.
For the first mobile visit, Delgado said clinic doctors invited patients from the healthy lifestyles center, the pediatric and obstetrics departments and a department that cares for diabetic pregnant women, called PEP Services, or Perinatal Evaluation and Procedures. Delgado called targeting kids and moms-to-be first a “no brainer.” He said they will invite more of the clinic’s patients as the program continues.
Despite overcoming obstacles to bringing the truck to the clinic, one more obstacle still exists. Delgado said some patients may be embarrassed or ashamed to take free food. To overcome that fear, the clinic is trying to make the event more about health than handouts.
“By tying it to the health of their children or unborn child, we’re trying to help overcome that stigma,” Delgado said.
McCown is optimistic that patients will take advantage of the free produce. She called trust a huge issue for low-income clients and thinks they will trust the doctors who are urging them to participate. She also lauded Delgado for working to make the Produce Mobile a reality at the clinic.
“Without Dr. Delgado’s vision it would not be happening.”