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Trillium testing out “food pharmacy” program

Karrie Gates standing in grocery aisle inside Trillium Health Center's food pantry.
Racquel Stephen
Karrie Gates, Trillium Health Center senior director for supportive services, launches food pharmacy program for patients who qualify.

The concept of using food as medicine to help reverse some chronic illnesses is now being experimented with worldwide.

And in Monroe County, Trillium Health Center is launching a food pharmacy program that will allow physicians to write “food prescriptions” for those who are eligible.

The pilot program was developed by Karrie Gates, the center’s senior director for supportive services. She said the goal is to provide patients with not only the proper food, but the skills and education needed to help reverse their illness and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

“We can continue to give people food, but until they take ownership of how to use it, what to do with it, and sustain that, we're always going to be in that stage of (just) giving people food,” Gates said.

Once a patient has agreed to participate in the program they will receive individualized plans, including access to the food pantry, a dietary expert, cooking classes and farming workshops

"It’s a program where you can learn to cook a little bit better, you can understand how food relates to this issue, and how you can make an impact on it,” Gates said.

According to an article published in the BMJ, one of every five deaths globally is related to poor dietary practices.

“The way you interact with food is just so important for your whole health,” said Barbara Lohse, head of RIT’s Wegman’s School of Health and Nutrition. “It's not even just the nutrients that you take in-- it's your approach to eating, and how you fit food into your lifestyle.”

Lohse said the idea of a food pharmacy program could be an effective way of breaking unhealthy patterns and creating healthier people with a higher degree of eating competence.

“Don't feel guilty because you had a dish of ice cream, don't feel guilty because you didn't have half of your plate be fruits and vegetables in the dinnertime,” Lohse said. “Do the best you can. Every little inch is better, and have food be an enjoyable part of your life.’’

The Food pharmacy program will require about a three-year commitment from participants, who will be assessed at the end to track progress and efficacy.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.