Filling 'prescriptions' for fruit and veggies blowing food bank's budget

Filling 'prescriptions' for fruit and veggies blowing food bank's budget

An Ottawa food bank that accepts "prescriptions" for fresh produce is struggling to keep up as more and more people come from across the city looking for fruit and vegetables.

About five years ago, the Parkdale Food Centre in Hintonburg began accepting clients from outside its catchment area, provided they have a written note for nutritious food from their doctor or social worker. 

It's part of a growing "social prescription" movement to promote healthy eating, exercise and even social interaction.

Karen Secord, executive director of the Parkdale Food Centre, said since the food bank began accepting the prescriptions, she's seen its monthly food budget nearly double from $12,000 to $22,000.

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"Right now, about 55 per cent of the people who are coming here are coming here with prescriptions for healthy food," Secord said.

"They're coming from across the city with a prescription from their doctors saying, my patient has a low income, has diabetes or hypertension or whatever other reason, and requires healthy food."

Fresh produce

Secord said the food bank, located within the Somerset West Community Health Centre, is unique because it strives to offer only healthy food, including unlimited fruit and vegetables.

Agnes Nakitende and her family came to Canada from Uganda about six months ago. When they arrived, she said her children started developing food allergies and her husband was diagnosed with diabetes.

Nakitende said the processed food readily available here was partly to blame.

"When we visited our dietitian he advised us that we need to look into our menu. It meant that now we needed to have more of the veggies, we needed to have more of the fruits, which we could not afford to buy in the stores," Nakitende said.

She said her dietitian then directed them toward the Parkdale Food Centre. Armed with a prescription, the family was welcomed with open arms even though they live in another part of town.

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'Like angels to me'

Idayat Olugbade was in a similar situation after moving to Ottawa from Nigeria with her three children. She buses about 45 minutes from their shelter in the east end to get to the Parkdale Food Centre.

Olugbade recalls the first time she arrived home with the fresh produce

"When my children saw it they all cried. I cried, because that's my first time of someone helping me as much as that," Olugbade said. "They're just amazing people here. I don't know where they come from, they're just like angels to me."

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Dr. Laura Muldoon, a family physician in the Somerset West Community Health Centre, said the idea of social prescriptions is spreading within the medical community. 

Muldoon said she directs patients to the Parkdale food bank because she knows they have fresh produce, and she knows they accept prescriptions.

"I haven't ever actually directed anyone to a different food bank to see if that would work," Muldoon said.

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For the Parkdale Food Centre, though, its reputation as the go-to spot for nutritious food has come at a cost. Secord said when she decided to start accepting the prescriptions, it was partly to prove a point.

"What I'm trying to do is to show that when people do not have access to healthy food, we indeed have a public health crisis," Secord said.

The food bank is now joining with eight other organizations to try to create distribution hubs across the city where people will eventually be able to get fresh food closer to home.