Greg Jones, the vice president of community health and engagement for Hartford HealthCare, prefers to call Hartford a food swamp, rather than a food desert.

“There’s stuff out there, but you don’t want to eat it,” he said, adding that on top of people in the city struggling with food insecurity, they’re also struggling with nutritional insecurity.

To help combat nutrition deficits in their most vulnerable patients, Hartford HealthCare has started its Food FARMacy, a 1,000-square-foot space on the first floor of its Brownstone Building at 79 Retreat Ave. that is being officially opened Friday.

The FARMacy looks like any produce section at a grocery store, only it’s staffed with clinicians who help patients who, with a prescription from a doctor, pick out healthy produce and meat to help improve health outcomes.

“The key here is food is medicine,” Jones said. “If we can encourage more people to look at it that way, then we can encourage better and healthier diets.”

It’s not a food pantry, Jones says.

“We have healthy produce and have a healthy tie-in with clinicians who are able to prescribe food that will help them with their health outcomes,” he said.

Dr. Jessica Mullins, the director of gynecology at Hartford HealthCare who also has been working as an OB-GYN at the Women’s Ambulatory Health Services, treats women who are mostly underserved and uninsured in the local community.

She says the initiative will be a huge benefit to her patients, as improved nutrition will result in better outcomes for both the mothers and the babies.

“In women who are pregnant, food insecurity can cause inappropriateness and excess weight gain in pregnancy,” Mullins said. “That can result in poor pregnancy outcomes, but moreover can actually impact the health of their babies even later on in life. That can include obesity, heart conditions and stroke if the moms do not have appropriate nutrition while pregnant.”

Mullins said her clinic started screening for food insecurity in 2019, with the positivity rate at about 25%. During the pandemic, the positivity rate exploded to 50%, she said.

“It’s a big issue in our patient population,” she said.

Mullins said in the past patients who were screened as being food insecure would be referred to a clinician who will talk to them about the importance of nutrition and then told of food banks in the area, as well as information on government assistance.

The FARMacy is one additional, practical tool to not only provide education and tell patients where to go, but also provide them with healthy food that can be picked up right on the Hartford HealthCare campus.

“It’s going to truly impact our patient care tremendously,” Mullins said, adding she had done a research project with a resident that looked at the impact of nutritional counseling on patients in prenatal care. “Just by having a visit with a nutritionist, that decreased inappropriate weight gain by about half. So even having just that education was helpful. I cannot imagine how much more impact we will have when we can provide our patients with food.”

The patients can also select food for their entire families, Mullins said, so the FARMacy’s reach is much greater.

Recipes, written in Spanish and English, will also be displayed next to the food to help patients with preparation, Mullins said.

Jones said the FARMacy, which will be open weekdays and one weekend day, will accommodate 200 to 250 visits per month initially, with an eye toward expansion. The program is also being piloted in the areas of bariatrics and advanced heart failure.

Hartford resident Noemi Rodriguez, 63, has a number of health issues, including diabetes. She said through an interpreter that she’s looking forward to starting the program to get the food and the fruits and vegetables.

“I’m very happy about it,” she said.

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