BLOOMINGTON — Ana Elena Regalado was resupplying her arsenal for her ongoing battle against diabetes and her weapons were green beans, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries, plums, bananas, spinach and apples.

"Before, when I shopped, I wouldn't buy healthier things," Regalado said. "It's easier to get healthier options here because of the way it's set up."

Regalado was grocery shopping, for herself and her three children, in the Bread for Life Food Co-op in the basement of Home Sweet Home Ministries, 303 E. Oakland Ave.

But just as important was what she was holding in her hand: a prescription pass from the Community Health Care Clinic, allowing her 12 shopping trips to the food co-op to get healthful produce to help to get her diabetes under control.

The prescription pass is a part of "Food Farmacy," an innovative pilot program of Home Sweet Home and the Community Health Care Clinic.

Clinic patients with diabetes and heart disease and who don't have regular access to nutritious food are given a prescription pass allowing them 12 free trips to the food co-op, where fresh produce — most of it locally grown and donated — is front and center.

The goal is for low-income patients to combat diabetes and heart disease using healthy foods, in addition to exercising and taking their medicine.

"Our lower-income neighbors have to be industrious to make ends meet," said Matt Burgess, Home Sweet Home chief operating officer. "If we can help someone who is trying to improve their physical health, we want to be able to do that."

Since the pilot began in August, 10 clinic patients have used Food Farmacy Prescription Passes at the food co-op, Burgess said. Six of the 10 have been to the co-op at least three times.

"Over half coming on a regular basis is a tremendous response to a program that is voluntary," Burgess said.

"I'm trying new things. I'm eating things with less sodium, more whole grains and more fresh produce," said Regalado, who sometimes answered questions directly and sometimes responded through Haley Janisch, a Spanish/nurse intern with the Community Health Care Clinic.

"Physically, I feel better," she said after shopping at the co-op on Oct. 4. "I'm proud of myself for making these changes and being a good example to my family."

The program, while new to McLean County, isn't unique. Larger cities, such as Boston, have food pharmacy programs, said clinic Executive Director Angie McLaughlin.

Knowing about food pharmacy programs in other communities and recognizing that the Home Sweet Home food co-op, which serves lower-income clients, already had ample supplies of mostly locally grown fresh produce, Burgess and McLaughlin began discussing a program for McLean County low-income residents with diabetes and heart disease.

Home Sweet Home, which provides services to the homeless, was interested because health events (such as heart attack, stroke and diabetes complications) and their associated medical costs frequently trigger homelessness, Burgess said.

He chose "farmacy" rather than "pharmacy" to remind people that the food comes from mostly local farms and gardens.

"Pharmacies are associated with pills and inhalers," Burgess said. "At our farmacy, food is the medicine. This is an innovative way to address diet-related health concerns and (rising) health care costs because we're not prescribing more medicine."

"We are always looking at how can we better serve our patient population," McLaughlin said. Regular access to affordable, healthful food is a challenge for some clinic patients.

"Food Farmacy was a creative idea we were interested in," she said.

Burgess and McLaughlin looped in Erin Kennedy, manager of the Center for Healthy Lifestyles at OSF HealthCare St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington, and Sally Gambacorta, community health manager for Advocate BroMenn Medical Center in Normal.

"OSF is excited to be at the table to make our patients healthier using healthier foods," Kennedy said.

McLean County's Community Health Improvement Plan — approved in February by BroMenn, St. Joseph, the McLean County Health Department and United Way of McLean County — identified promoting programs that make fresh fruits and vegetables more available to the poor as a countywide need.

"The Community Health Improvement Plan identified food insecurity as an issue," Gambacorta said. People are food insecure when, in the previous year, they ate less or were hungry because they didn't have enough money or didn't have access to healthy food, she said.

"Food insecurity is linked to poor health outcomes, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease," she said.

Representatives of Home Sweet Home, the clinic, BroMenn and St. Joseph rearranged the co-op so healthy produce is in the front. They applied for a $50,000 grant to allow Home Sweet Home to hire additional staff and expand hours of the co-op, which is open six hours a week. That would open the door for prescription passes for qualifying patients from the clinic, OSF HealthCare Medical Group doctors' offices and from the Advocate BroMenn Family Health Clinic, which serves primarily lower-income patients.

The grant was denied so the entities decided to start small, with a pilot program for qualifying Community Health Care Clinic patients. St. Joseph and BroMenn hope to expand the program if a future grant application is successful.

Regalado, 42, of Bloomington, who doesn't have health insurance, has been a clinic patient for 12 years. She is on medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes and has the former two under control.

"The diabetes I'm still working on," she admitted. "They (clinic staff) took care of my medicine. My job is to work on exercising and my eating habits. I'm trying."

Regalado is eating more fresh produce and fewer carbohydrates, cutting down on three things that were staples of her diet: rice, beans and tortillas.

"I wanted to try it," she said of the Food Farmacy. Her Oct. 4 shopping trip was her fourth to the food co-op.

"I love it," she said. "I'm learning which foods are good and which foods are bad and they give you recipes to use the produce."

"My diabetes is inherited," Regalado continued. "I'm able to teach my children. That's the most significant part of this. My kids are eating healthier at home. Hopefully, it will prevent diabetes in them and help them to make better choices."

Kennedy said "We are looking to improve the overall health and well being of everyone in our community and access to healthy foods is one way we're doing that."

"We will have a stronger, healthier population, with more people contributing," McLaughlin said. "Our entire community well-being is being improved."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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