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Food is Medicine: Increasing Access to Healthy Foods for Better Health

According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 200,000 Mainers, or approximately 15% of the states’ residents, are food insecure, meaning that they lack regular access to enough nutritious food to lead a healthy life.  A diet that includes adequate amounts of healthful foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits can reduce or prevent the incidence and severity of many chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

Funded by the CDC’s Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH), Healthy Acadia, EMHS, and partners throughout northern Maine are working to increase the number of Hancock and Washington county residents with improved access to healthy food and beverage options.  Now in year three 3 of the program, the partners are focused on improving healthy food access in three major areas: hospital settings, food pantries, and through clinical community linkages. Mount Desert Island Hospital, a PICH Healthy Hospitals partner, has improved access to healthy foods for its employees by incorporating simple changes  in its campus cafeteria.

Imagine This. You head to the cafeteria for lunch.  Grabbing a tray, you start toward the service line to assemble your meal, when a rainbow of color next to the cash register catches your eye.  Brilliant oranges, sunny yellow bananas, and crisp, shiny apples in vibrant shades of red and green have been arranged strategically alongside bottles of ice-cold, crystal-clear spring water. Instead of your usual macaroni-and-cheese, you grab a couple of hard-boiled eggs and head over to the tantalizing display. As you approach, you inhale the light and uplifting citrus scent. You pause, and your gaze is drawn to the verdant Granny Smith apples.  Your mouth waters as you imagine biting into one, its crisp tart juice tickling your tongue. You reach for the largest one and place it on your tray, along with a bottle of pure, ice-cold water.

The new, strategically-placed fresh fruit and water station in their campus cafeteria was implemented in an effort to increase employee access to healthy food and beverage options for the more than 500 employees of the Mount Desert Island Hospital (MDIH). This small change is the result of MDIH partnering with Healthy Acadia through the Healthy Hospital Initiative.

Research shows that when healthy food items are easily seen and readily available, people will often select a healthier product. Improved access to healthy foods can result from small, incremental changes in policies, environmental and system changes within hospitals.  According to MDIH Food Service Director Marion McLellan RD, since she has relocated the fresh fruit closer to the cash register, the cafeteria is “flying through the fruit, especially the oranges!” One MDIH employee said she really wanted to buy some cookies but the oranges, “…looked really good and were a healthier choice.”

For more information about Healthy Hospitals and other initiatives funded through the CDC’s Partnerships to Improve Community Health in Hancock and Washington counties, contact Sandie Dubay (Hancock County) at 667-7171 or Regina Grabrovac (Washington County) at 255-3741.

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