David Heckendorn knew he had to change his eating habits, but he wasn’t sure where to start.
A number of health challenges hampered the 74-year-old retiree’s efforts to lose weight, including physical impairment following a stroke. He also has a history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, colon cancer, and metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, which make heart attack, stroke, and diabetes more likely.
“I was heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “I realized I needed to do something about it, because my health was at stake.”
Heckendorn’s doctor recommended Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s Food Farmacy program, which combines one-on-one meetings with a registered dietitian and access to healthy food options. The program aims to improve health outcomes, nutrition-related knowledge and skills, and dietary habits among patients who are also experiencing food insecurity, or inability to access enough food to live an active, healthy life.
Food Farmacy program manager Laura Rodgers, MS, RD, LDN, said food and nutrition play an important role in maintaining good health, managing and preventing diseases in patients like Heckendorn, who have conditions or situations that are responsive to changes in their diet.
Laura Rodgers, MS, RD, LDN
“Our goal is to help patients implement healthy diet and lifestyle changes to improve their overall health, as well as manage and prevent chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer,” Rodgers said. “Many of our patients have seen very promising results, including weight loss and reductions in body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure.”
The Food Farmacy team works closely with patients’ health care providers, as well as local food pantry partners. Patients meet regularly with an LG Health registered dietitian at a food pantry, where they receive nutrition counseling and “shop” the shelves for healthy food for themselves and their families. What’s more, there is no cost to the patient.
Heckendorn’s primary-care physician, Elizabeth Doherty, MD, with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health Physicians Family Medicine Buck, often talks with her patients about changing their diet or eating habits to help improve their health. Even so, she said, many patients don’t know exactly what steps to take, and some are unable to access or afford healthy food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables or low-sodium options.
“Most lifestyle changes require more follow-up and discussion than we can usually provide in a routine office visit,” she said. “Being able to work one-on-one with a dietitian who can spend time with them and have that linked to providing healthy food is really powerful.”
Empowering patients to make healthy choices
The number of Americans experiencing food insecurity was declining for over a decade before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, that number is now rising and recently was projected to reach 10.2 percent in Lancaster County, PA, according to Feeding America. Food security isn’t just about having enough food, Rodgers said. People also need access to healthy foods that support their individual dietary needs.
Elizabeth Doherty, MD
The Food Farmacy is part of LG Health’s larger Food is Medicine community benefit initiative, which addresses barriers to healthy eating in Lancaster County, particularly for low-income, food-insecure individuals and families. In 2019, LG Health launched a two-year pilot of the Food Farmacy in collaboration with existing food pantries in Lancaster City, Paradise, and Quarryville, PA.
The Food Farmacy received overwhelmingly positive responses from patients, medical providers, and food pantry partners during the pilot, Rodgers said. Locations are now planned for Columbia, Elizabethtown, and Lebanon, PA, along with the hiring of additional registered dietitians.
Promising results from the pilot included weight loss and a lower BMI in 88 percent of patients and a reduced waist circumference in 94 percent of patients, she said. In addition, 69 percent of patients lowered their blood pressure, and 75 percent improved their HDL cholesterol. In post-program surveys, a large majority of patients reported increased intentions to eat a healthier diet, as well as increased nutrition knowledge and confidence in the kitchen.
Rodgers has witnessed both large and small successes in her patients, including one woman who lost 35 pounds and 8.5 inches off her waist. Another patient shared that she now encourages her granddaughter to eat healthy snacks, such as rice cakes with peanut butter, and go on walks with her.
Doherty’s patients who have participated in the program have gained a newfound sense of empowerment over their own health.
“Working with the Food Farmacy seems to leave them with knowledge about what choices they can make to help improve their health and access to resources that make those choices possible,” she said.
“I’m losing, and that’s a win”
Heckendorn is one of those success stories. With Rodgers’ help, he learned more about reading food labels and determining appropriate portion sizes. He tracks his calories and uses the MyPlate visual to practice portion control at each meal.
He is pleased with the variety of foods available through the Food Farmacy. In general, he is more aware of what he eats, which includes more vegetables and less red meat. He also exercises more regularly, and his ability to walk and do seated exercises has improved.
Heckendorn appreciates the accountability of having regular meetings with Rodgers, as well as her positivity and encouragement, especially if he has a setback. He has lost 24 pounds and 6 inches off his waist so far, and his BMI has decreased by over three points.
Although he sometimes gets a little frustrated with the gradual pace of his weight loss, he understands that steady progress is more important than a quick fix.
“I’m developing a lifestyle of healthy eating,” he said. “I’m losing, and that’s a win.”
To learn more about the Food Farmacy program, please call 717-544-3531.