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Feeding our patients, investing in our communities

September 09, 2021

Food voucher program provides local produce to food insecure patients and gives back to area farmers

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Thanks to WellSpan's Market Bucks program, Brian Runkle is able to purchase local produce at area farm markets and eat healthier.

Thanks to WellSpan's Market Bucks program, Brian Runkle is able to purchase local produce at area farm markets and eat healthier.

Brian Runkle had been living in his 2000 Cadillac Escalade for a few years when his health began to decline. He had Type 2 diabetes and was having cardiac issues that had been going on for some time.

A personal cell phone and a computer at the local library were Runkle’s main ways of communicating, but when COVID-19 hit the region last year, the library temporarily closed. 

“I couldn’t see well enough on my phone and I put off seeking medical attention,” he said.

Fast forward to 2021 – Runkle, at 59, entered WellSpan York Hospital in April with continued cardiac symptoms. He spent 12 days in the hospital and needed a defibrillator.

During recovery, he met Julie Sokalski, registered dietitian who works with patients who are in cardiac rehabilitation. She not only counseled him about heart healthy foods and recipes but also introduced him to WellSpan’s Market Bucks program, where he obtained vouchers to purchase healthy foods from participating farm markets.

In addition, with the help of the WellSpan’s Arches to Wellness recuperative care program, which provides housing during Runkle’s recovery, he has access to a kitchen and is able to prepare his own meals.

How does Market Bucks work?

Since 2014, WellSpan’s Market Bucks program has provided food insecure patients access to healthier foods, including fruits and vegetables from participating farm markets. The program offers a “food is medicine” approach for WellSpan Medical Group and specialty patients.

The program, which runs from May through October, helps patients get their recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables and try new fruits and vegetables they may not otherwise be able to afford, Sokalski explained. 

“Heart disease comes as a surprise to a lot of our patients and many changes often come with managing heart disease,” she said. “Market Bucks allows these patients to go to the farmer's market and pick up fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits to prepare and eat at home.”

Sokalski educates patients on how to pick, store and prepare their fruits and vegetables as well as provides different ways to incorporate them into each meal and snack.  

And with 37 local farm markets participating in the program – including 10 new farmers from Franklin and Lebanon counties this year – patients like Runkle have a wide range of choices that are close to home. The bucks are redeemable through October so participants may take advantage of the region’s optimal growing season.

“No matter where I go, I can find a market,” Runkle said and added that he often “shops” around for certain foods. 

Armed with $60 in Market Bucks at each distribution, Runkle has been able to redeem his bucks for the freshest produce in season. He’s on a low-sodium diet, counts his carbohydrates and often uses spices to add flavor to his recipes. 

And having been raised on a 200-acre farm near Cross Roads, in York County, he recognizes the importance of fresh local produce. 

During a recent visit to J-Mar Farms in York, Runkle purchased ingredients for fruit and garden salads, including fresh broccoli, cauliflower, spring onions and tomatoes which will last him most of the week, for less than $20. He also makes his own low-salt version of ranch dressing.

“I love to cook,” he said and added that he often oversees the holiday meals for his mother each year. From plain or oyster stuffing, to preparing the turkey, Runkle makes it all from scratch, only now it’s healthier. 

A healthier and richer community

As of last year, the program helped nearly 900 patients since 2014 and 98 percent of the participants completed the program, according to Joe Anne Ward-Cottrell, Market Bucks coordinator, health educator, Community Health and Wellness.  

In addition, since Market Bucks began, more than $96,000 has gone back to local farmers in support of the local food system, she added.

“It's very rewarding when patients tell me they have used this tool to their full advantage to try new fruits and vegetables, explore new farmer's markets, freeze leftovers for the off-season, and then find a way to add fruits and vegetables to their budget, when possible,” Sokalski said.

These days, Runkle said he is feeling healthier and credits the program for helping him achieve a healthier weight and lifestyle, losing almost 90 pounds and walking without running out of breath.

New pilot program – Market Bucks Lite

This year, Market Bucks Lite began assisting specialty patients who aren’t eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables and who also qualify as food insecure. 

Maternal health, cancer and cardiac patients receive a one-time distribution of vouchers for fruits and vegetables during and after their treatment or medical condition, Ward-Cottrell said.