A new community-supported agriculture program, started by CUMC's Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research and local community groups, opens an opportunity for researchers to determine if increased access to fresh fruit and vegetables improves health.
On most days, about 25 people visit the Columbia Community Partnership for Health (CCPH) on Fort Washington Avenue to hear a talk on stroke prevention and other health topics, participate in a clinical trial, or search for health information on the free computers.
But every Thursday this summer, the health pamphlets are set aside to make room for crates full of organic vegetables delivered earlier in the day from a farm 60 miles upstate. About 50 people pass through the center, filling their shopping bags with fresh lettuce, radishes and garlic.
“It’s simply stunning,” says one admirer as she picks up a head of garlic with its two-foot stalk still attached. “Is the stalk edible?” another woman asks.
“This isn’t the dried out stuff you get in the supermarket,” says Leigh Quarles, MPH, a program coordinator for the Partnership. “This is fresh, straight from the farm, organic produce.”
If distributing fresh produce sounds like an unusual activity for the scientists in Columbia’s Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research – which operates CCPH – the Institute’s scientists completely agree.
“As scientists, we never would have thought of this,” says Bernadette Boden-Albala, DrPH, who co-directs the Irving Institute’s community engagement resource and is assistant professor of neurology (in P&S) and sociomedical sciences (in Mailman). “It was sitting around listening to the community that led to this project, and it’s now become one way we hope to help encourage healthy eating in the community.”
All the people who pass through CCPH each Thursday are members of a new community-supported agriculture (CSA) program – called Tierra Direct – spearheaded by Columbia’s Irving Institute and local community groups. In a CSA, members pay a farmer upfront for a full season’s worth of produce and, in return, receive a share of freshly harvested vegetables each week.
Can CSAs Improve Health?
CSAs are popular in prosperous communities, but local neighborhood groups see them as one way to help bring down the high rates of obesity and diabetes in less affluent areas like Washington Heights.
The local community groups had already helped Dr. Boden-Albala put together a grant proposal for an obesity-prevention program in the community.
“But what we really wanted is fresh food,” says Carly Hutchinson, a community member and director of communications and community relations of the Harlem Health Promotion Center, a CCPH partner in this project. “There aren’t many places in this community with an abundance of fresh food. People have to travel to find a good selection.”
“To a lot of Dominicans, fresh equals healthy,” Dr. Boden-Albala says. “If the only choices are frozen, people don’t buy it and then they end up not eating many vegetables at all.”
Within minutes of picking up his first shares, Claudia McCormack’s husband was already at home eating radishes. Ms. McCormack, an acupuncturist who lives next to the Partnership, popped in for help in identifying the mysterious greens he brought home.
“They’re called quintoniles. It’s a wild green popular in Oaxaca, where our farmer grew up,” Ms. Quarles says. “It’s similar to spinach and it can be used in a salad or served with eggs.”
Ms. McCormack says she and her husband had been trying to join a CSA for years when they heard about Tierra Direct. “Anything to get my husband to eat more vegetables is worth it,” she says.
Marie Cruz, who found the new CSA through fliers distributed throughout Washington Heights, says she normally travels downtown to get the variety of fresh vegetables she wants.
The new CSA saves her time, money, and provides her with high quality produce she can’t find in the neighborhood. “I’m thinking of making some vegetable pilafs first,” she says, holding a head of dark green lettuce. “Then maybe puree some into some green juices.”
Tierra Direct members receive 7 to 10 different vegetables each week, enough to feed a family of 2 or 3. What shareholders don’t get, as with the majority of CSAs, is much advance warning about what kinds of vegetables will be delivered each week.
“You really have to rethink the way you eat when you belong to a CSA,” Dr. Boden-Albala says. “Now you have all these vegetables and you don’t want them to go to waste, so you eat them. And you also have less money to spend on less healthy food.”
Joining Tierra Direct also means joining a community. Cooking classes for members will start soon, emphasizing the use of fresh ingredients in traditional Dominican recipes. And a trip to Tierra Direct’s farm is planned for the fall.
For Dr. Boden-Albala, helping to set up the CSA also opens an opportunity to see if CSAs can improve health.
“Are we increasing knowledge about fresh vegetables? Will we see a change in body mass or hypertension in the participants over time?” she says. “These are questions we want to evaluate, and we’re working on putting that into place right now.”