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The Farmacy Project’s Healing Goodness

Baby turnips sautéed in olive oil, sweet and tender with a slight peppery bite. Oven roasted patty pan squash with fragrant herbs. Roasted cabbage. These tastes and aromas were foreign to Eileen Henry’s pallet. She’d never tried many of the nutritious Vermont farm fresh vegetables before the Farmacy introduced her to the flavor abundance available right in her hometown.

The Farmacy “food is medicine” initiative by the Vermont Farmers Food Center in Rutland in collaboration with Community Health primary care providers and local farmers, introduced Henry and 224 others to the varieties of healthy food available this summer season.

Farmacy is in year eight, a model program of helping people discover the nutrition and flavor in farm fresh foods and connecting with Vermont farmers who believe in the potential of sustaining a quality, healthy productive life through the healing goodness of regenerative agriculture.

“I was born and raised in Rutland and live in an assisted living facility in Rutland,” said 63-year-old Henry. “I’m retired, because of my health.” She joined the Farmacy three years ago at the suggestion of her Community Health primary care provider. “I’ve lost over 45 pounds, gotten off diabetic medication and learned how to eat better,” she said. “I also learned about new vegetables I would never have tried.” Community Health providers recommend participants to take part in the Farmacy program which provides free vegetables and fruit for 15 weeks during the growing season.

As a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, Community Health Quality Coordinator Michele Redmond, RN, BSN, CDCES has referred patients to the Farmacy project. Eating healthy is a core of her diabetes education program. “As their funds dwindle at the end of the month, I have had patients tell me their primary source of food becomes boxed meals, that are high in carbohydrate, or they have to rely on assistance from local food pantries.” Farmacy ensures a weekly share of healthy food, while the Vermont Farmers Food Center offers educational opportunities like cooking classes beginning in August.

Every Wednesday, Henry and other Farmacy participants receive 10-12 pounds of fresh vegetables grown by a group of  local farmers. The Farmacy project pays a market price agreed upon by farms upfront for crops they are contracted to grow like turnips, kale, Swiss chard, onions, beets, carrots, salad greens, squash, tomatoes, herbs, cucumbers, strawberries, snap peas, radishes, kohlrabi, beans, Brussels sprouts, dried beans, garlic, peppers and melons. Community Health practice locations serve as distribution sites where participants can pick up their weekly shares.

“Our mission is to get local food onto every dinner plate in the county, no matter who that person is, or what their situation is,” said Emma Hileman, VFFC Program Director. “We are also here to support the local farmers, so we have a thriving local food economy in Rutland County.”

The farmers have an assured revenue stream for their crops and a link to a network of peers and retail outlets associated with the Vermont Farmers Food Center.

“We focus on small local farms and supporting those producers and having programs that give access to the whole community to have those local foods in their diet,” Hileman said.

Laura Burch founded SVT Farm in Wells, Vermont in 2019. “For Farmacy, the crops would be kale, Swiss chard, lettuce, beets and carrots,” she said. “Farmacy is supporting my growth.” She and her husband left their farm in Fort Ann and purchased the 25-acre historic Wells farmstead and started pasture raising beef and lamb and cultivating vegetables on a small scale. Her traditional farmstead sits on 14 open acres with a brook and meadow and a south facing farmhouse built in 1796. Burch, who comes from a Vermont farming family, is bringing the land back to life with her farming system.

Ryan Yoder and his family have been farming Yoder Farm in Danby, Vermont for the past 11 years and have been with the Farmacy project for about five years. So far this year, they have supplied the Farmacy with strawberries, snap peas, radishes, Swiss chard, kale and kohlrabi. Yoder takes part in the Farmacy and other Food Center programs convinced that “food is medicine” and that regenerative health and agriculture can address health care and environmental issues. “If we improve the life in our soil, it unlocks more nutrition in the soil,” Yoder said. “That’s what gives us the healthiest food to eat. We can use agriculture to address the bigger health and environmental crises.”

Tanya Tolchin and Scott Hertzberg have been farming for 15 years. They moved from Maryland four years ago to open Otter Point Farm in West Haven where they grow watermelon, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries and fresh cut herbs for the Farmacy. “Our niche is here in what they call the banana belt, in the Champlain Valley. It’s definitely a warm spot,” she said. “My husband and I are drawn to farming for lots of the reasons people get drawn in –  organics and concern about protecting the environment. We are concerned about food justice as well,” she said. “The Farmacy is a perfect fit for us.” Their farmland is preserved by the Vermont Land Trust and the produce certified organic by Vermont Organic Farmers. Tolchin calls her Farmacy connection a “perfect match to our core mission to grow affordable healthy food that is accessible to the community.”

The pandemic created challenges for the Vermont Farmers Food Center (VFFC) and the Farmacy Project. “When the indoor farmer’s market was shut down because of Covid, we scrambled and created an online market very quickly,” said Hileman. “And we kept it going. We still have people who find it easier to order online and pick up their bags of local veggies and fresh groceries on Wednesdays,” she said.

Yoder, vice president of the VFFC board, said the Vermont Farmers Food Center is a place where farmers “can aggregate, where we can market and distribute, where we can have food processing facilities. And simultaneously, that creates infrastructure that hopefully down the road is going to be available so that people in Rutland have food to eat.”

“It’s farmers engaging in community,” said Burch. “When all hands come together, the pieces come together.”

The pandemic also put pressure on those who were already struggling with food insecurity. The Food Center is the Rutland area hub for the statewide Everyone Eats program. Participating restaurants are paid $10 per ready-to-eat meal that includes at least 10% of locally sourced vegetables and other ingredients. Grants and funding have allowed Everyone Eats to supply 3,000 meals a week for the remainder of 2022. The program has received additional funding to keep a smaller scale version going in the future.

“We are the Food Center, not just the Farmacy project,” Hileman said. “A lot of our members have signed up with the Come Alive Outside and NatureRX  healthy living programs. Like Community Health we have an integrative approach to health and wellness. It’s what we are all about here too. Collaborating with local organizations fortifies our mission and can make a much stronger impact,” said Hileman.

During the Food Center annual meeting, Executive Director Heidi Lynch celebrated the Food Center’s tenth anniversary. Board member Phil Ackerman-Leist spoke about the West Street campus in Rutland and “the privilege of being here in the heart of the community.” As programs are being enhanced and streamlined, he said they are evaluating programs like the online market and how to keep the organization financially sustainable “to perpetuate its good work, so the farmers get the greatest return and consumers get the greatest value.”

“The farmers don’t get enough praise,” Henry said. “It’s a wonderful program all around and I like to support the local farmers.” Using one of the recipes provided in her Farmacy share, Henry mixed up a salad dressing using another new ingredient – garlic scapes. “They are wonderful,” she said. “And I saved a ton of money!”

Follow this series over the next three months, every Friday, as we discuss primary care, value-based care and Community Health’s role in providing high quality health care services that include support groups and educational programs. Find out more about Community Health’s preventive programs and watch for our follow up stories about diabetes education, Alzheimer’s support and behavioral health programs exclusive to Community Health.

Community Health is Vermont’s largest Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), a network of primary care, pediatric, behavioral health, dental and pharmacy services with offices in Rutland, Brandon, Castleton, West Pawlet and Shoreham. Community Dental offices are located in Rutland and Shoreham; Community Kids Dental is in Rutland; Community Health Pediatrics is in Rutland and Behavioral Health services are available at all locations. Community Health Express Care Centers, open 7 days a week, are located at the Rutland and Castleton Community Health Centers. For more information about Community Health, check our website

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