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Groundbreaking Community Collaboration Sowing the Seeds of Better Health for East San Jose Kids


San Jose pediatrician Daniel Delgado has a big problem. His young patients - all from low-income families - are overweight or obese and in danger of developing diabetes. Many don't have access to the fresh fruits and vegetables vital for better nutrition. How to connect his patients with the foods they so desperately need?

Delgado is hoping that some of that need will be met this Saturday, June 12, when for the first time the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties will bring its Produce Mobile to the East Valley Clinic of the Santa Clara County Valley Medical Center. The refrigerated truck is chock full of free, fresh produce reserved for qualified low-income families.

"It's the very first county clinic site where this type of collaboration is happening," Delgado told me on a break between patients. "It's groundbreaking." As Director of the Pediatric Healthy Lifestyles Center, Delgado has spent two years working with officials from Second Harvest and Santa Clara County to make his vision of providing the fruits and vegetables to the clinic's patients.

Cindy McCown, Second Harvest senior director of programs and services, called their joint effort a "wonderful example of public and private partnership," bringing together a county agency, a non-profit organization, and local churches. "It's so exciting it's actually going to come to be on Saturday," she said.

More than 150 people will be able to choose from the free produce donated to Second Harvest by local farmers, the California Association of Food Banks and Feeding America. McCown describes the Produce Mobile as "a farmer's market on wheels." Selection of produce varies by season, but examples of what's available include oranges, apples, potatoes, cabbage and carrots. Simple to prepare recipes are provided in different languages, to give clients ideas about how to use the food.

Second Harvest has two donated trucks in the program, which was started in 2006. An estimated 32,000 people in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties benefit. The trucks - brightly decorated with enticing photos of fresh food on the sides - visit a total of 49 sites, including schools, a dental clinic, a soup kitchen and churches.

Usually the agencies and organizations Second Harvest partner with have volunteers who can help oversee the produce distribution at each of the sites. But the East Valley Clinic does not have the people power, McCown said, which became a hurdle for bringing a truck there. To overcome that issue, McCown turned to a friend of mine, Second Harvest board member Pat Plant, who is also the Hunger Action Enabler for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and The Presbytery of San Jose. Plant found five churches willing to provide 18 volunteers to work at the clinic the second Saturday of every month.

The partnership between the clinic and Second Harvest sprouted from a severe need that Delgado and fellow doctors see daily at the clinic. More than 30 percent of the children served by the East Valley Clinic are overweight. Most have developed insulin resistance or pre-diabetes and need fresh produce for the fiber and nutrients that will prevent them from developing diabetes in the future.

"People look at an overweight person and they think they are a glutton and are eating too much," Delgado told me. "That's not true. There's a huge disparity in what people eat and how they eat."

Some of the issues facing Delgado's patients include things like "food insecurity," which means being insecure about access to food due to lack of money. This can lead to things like hoarding food or overeating when there is access, and buying lower cost and lower quality food. Second Harvest officials also point to "food deserts" or entire low-income sections of cities where there is little or no access to large supermarkets that carry fresh, high quality produce at lower prices.

Delgado said there are grocery stores in East San Jose, but he called the produce available "suboptimal." He also said that families already strapped for cash will hesitate to buy fresh vegetables out of a fear that their kids won't eat them, meaning the money will be wasted. He hopes that the access to free produce will take away that worry, "and that will improve habits." 

It's also very common that at certain times of the month, families might not have the money to purchase food. The clinic's doctors often refer patients to Second Harvest, which provides free food to families that qualify. The clinic's patients more than qualify.

Now after two years and some red tape untangling with the county, the Produce Mobile has the clearance to roll onto the clinic grounds. Delgado is pleased that the clinic can now connect healthy food to patients at the same place they receive health care. 

As a trial, the clinic invited patients from the healthy lifestyles center, the pediatric and obstetrics departments and a department that cares for diabetic pregnant women, called PEP Services, or Perinatal Evaluation and Procedures. Delgado called targeting kids and moms-to-be first a "no brainer."

Despite overcoming obstacles to bringing the truck to the clinic, one more obstacle still exists. Delgado said some patients may be embarrassed or ashamed to take free food. To overcome that fear, the clinic is trying to make the event more about health than handouts.  "By tying it to the health of their children or unborn child, we're trying to help overcome that stigma," Delgado said.

McCown is optimistic that patients will indeed take advantage of the free produce. She called trust a huge issue for low-income clients and thinks they will trust the doctors who are urging them to participate. She also lauded Delgado for working to make the Produce Mobile a reality at the clinic.

"Without Dr. Delgado's vision it would not be happening."

Second Harvest always needs donations and volunteers. To find out how you can help, go to http://www.shfb.org.



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