NORTH HARWICH — When it comes to fighting high blood pressure or diabetes, most people know the importance of a healthy diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. But healthy eating isn't always easy, since fresh produce can be expensive and junk food seems to be everywhere around us.
A collaboration between the Family Pantry of Cape Cod and the Barnstable County Public Health Nurses is finding creative solutions to the problem. The partnership is effective, but it’s nothing new, Barnstable County Public Health Nurse Deirdre Arvidson said.
“I started a program for food pantries six years ago as outreach to vulnerable under-served populations. It's called Ask a Public Health Nurse,” she said. “The Family Pantry was one of the first ones I started in.”
The program evolved to its current form a short time later, and now provides more than just information about nutrition and diet-related health concerns. Now, people who have been identified as pre-diabetic or who are being treated for diabetes or high blood pressure can come to the Family Pantry every Tuesday from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. for a free, confidential blood pressure and blood sugar test, with a side order of healthy foods.
“About three years ago Falmouth Service Center received a grant to support the Foods to Encourage program, which is basically community-based chronic disease management pairing public health nurses and nutritionists,” Arvidson said. The goal of the program is simple: “To help diabetics and those with hypertension manage and improve their illness and stay out of the E.R.,” she said.
After the nurse takes their blood pressure or measures their blood sugar, clients are taught about their conditions and how to manage them effectively.
“There’s an education piece to this,” Family Pantry Executive Director Christine Menard said. Clients might learn about the role of diet in controlling blood pressure or diabetes and can learn how to obtain a blood pressure machine or blood test strips.
“Sometimes, this is the only access to a medical care person that these clients have,” Menard said.
The final piece of the program involves healthy food, which has been a focus of the Family Pantry.
“It’s pretty much in keeping with our strategy of continuing to improve the nutritional value of the food we offer clients,” she said. Once, food pantries focused on starchy foods that were more about filling hungry stomachs than about balanced nutrition, she said. And eating a healthy diet is simply more expensive than eating processed food. A diet that aims to reduce salt, sugar and carbohydrates means eating lean meats, fresh produce, brown rice or brown pasta, and “all of that is more expensive than not,” Menard said.
Clients who visit on Tuesday mornings will have access to a nutrition educator who cooks samples of a healthy meal.
“You get to taste the meal, you get the recipe for the meal, and then you get the bag of food that goes to make the meal,” she said. The program is free and open to the general public, and participants do not need to be Family Pantry clients to take part. To be eligible, participants must be under treatment for high blood pressure or diabetes or have been told they are at risk of diabetes.
Clients are encouraged, but not required, to visit every week for blood sugar or blood pressure monitoring. When they don’t show up, nurses might visit their home to make sure the client is well. Last year, two clients who went missing after having regularly attended were visited by a nurse. One had simply been too busy to come by, but the other had a health emergency and ended up in the hospital, Menard said.
“So it’s more than just monitoring their statistics every week,” she said. “You give them great food and then you give them access to nutrition information and health monitoring. They call it the ‘continuum of care.’”
To learn more about the program, call 508-432-6519.