Former Drug Users Receive Farm-Fresh Produce Through New Program

A new pilot project between farmers and the methadone clinic at the University of Vermont Medical Center provides clinic patients with fruits and veggies

A pilot project launched this year is connecting patients at the methadone clinic at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington with farm-fresh fruits and veggies gleaned through the Intervale Center's gleaning and food rescue program. The patients, who receive counseling and maintenance therapy at the clinic, are looking to leave behind heroin or prescription pill addiction.

Stacey Sigmon, a researcher at UVM's Vermont Center on Behavior and Health, got the ball rolling on the project. She told necn she wanted to boost nutrition among substance abusers, who, because of finances or transportation struggles, often have trouble buying healthy meals.

"Sometimes they're not that cheap," Sigmon said of farm-fresh vegetables sold at farmer's markets in the Burlington area. "And when you combine that with the fact that many of the people who come here for treatment have socioeconomic struggles, or mental health challenges, or problems with transportation-- anything we can do to help surmount those barriers and make it easier for people to eat healthily, I think it's a win-win."

The Intervale Center has been donating weekly deliveries of excess produce from its farmland to the methadone clinic, to give to patients free in the waiting room. Patients may also pick up suggested recipes which Sigmon said have been helpful in letting people what to know with vegetables that are new to some patients, like kale or purple string beans.

Clinic staff and volunteers pick up the produce from the Intervale and set it up once a week in the waiting area of the clinic. Participation has been increasing, according to the Vermont Center on Behavior & Health, with about 10-15 patients participating each week. Even more have been participating when there are easy-to-grab items available, such as a bushel of apples, staff noted.

Travis Marcotte, the executive director of the Intervale Center, said the organization believes good food can change the world by strengthening local food systems, improving farm viability, and promoting sustainable land use. Marcotte said the chance to work with the methadone clinic to encourage more community members to embrace local foods fit in perfectly with the non-profit's mission.

"Anywhere where we can find an opportunity to connect people in our community to food that's grown here in Vermont, we go for it," Marcotte told necn. "We want everyone in the community to have a seat at the table when it comes to appreciating and celebrating locally-grown food."

One patient at the clinic--a former heroin user and pill abuser who asked necn not to use his name--said he is hopeful the produce will help him and others who receive it combat a side effect of methadone that Sigmon said some patients experience: weight gain.

"The problem is the weight they're gaining is from Ramen noodles and Snickers, as opposed to butternut squash and McIntosh apples," the patient said of people on methadone therapy he has known, while acknowledging that some weight gain is still better than the life-threatening consequences of not seeking the therapy.

The patient also praised the pilot project for its work to educate an often economically disadvantaged population about recipes and meals.

"The better your body is, the better your mind is," the patient said. "Any education that we can have for people who live below the poverty line about proper nutrition is a wonderful thing. I think there isn't enough of it."

Sigmon said she hopes the benefits go beyond just the patients at the clinic themselves.

"We have a lot of patients who are single parents," she told necn. "Especially single moms with small kids. So my hope is that the whole family will get to enjoy the foods, and we're hearing that they are."

With the harvest winding down for the year, so is this pilot project. But Sigmon and Marcotte said there are already conversations underway about bringing it back next year, and Sigmon said she would like to explore possibly even expanding it to a second clinic location. 

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