Farmers markets and farm stands are cropping up everywhere this time of year, but there's something special about the little stand in south Pueblo near Lake Minnequa.

Farmers markets and farm stands are cropping up everywhere this time of year, but there’s something special about the little stand in south Pueblo near Lake Minnequa.

A block from St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center, the tents and tables arranged under towering cottonwood trees are part of an experiment in how to connect the medical community more strategically with the healing power of healthy food.

“Two things happen at this farm stand,” explained Linda Stetter, the hospital’s director of mission integration and the farm stand’s coordinator. “First of all, anybody can come and buy produce. But overlaid over the public part of the farm stand is that we select a pilot group of people who get prescriptions for healthy food, which they fill here.”

Joseph Edelson, a local gastroenterologist, and his wife, Sheila, are among the stand’s diverse following.

“We just like to come here. It’s like an extended family,” Sheila said on a recent Saturday morning. “And they always put out wonderful recipes.”

“The zucchini chocolate cake? That’s the doctor’s prescription right there,” her husband joked.

Pat Odell, who grew up nearby, moved away, returned and is now widowed and living with her daughter on a fixed income, said she’s drawn by the stand’s affordability and the quality of the produce.

“I had a tomato sandwich the other day. I hadn’t had one in years,” she said. “The fresh cucumber was so good I ate it all in one sitting.”

Odell loves digging in the dirt but, as a renter, her gardening is restricted. So instead she comes here to collect seasonal items, many of which she will preserve for future use.

“I’m like a squirrel. I stock up for the winter,” she said. “I always say I was born 200 years too late. I can, freeze and dehydrate food. My freezer is full. It’s running over.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood has the same level of cooking and canning skill, however, which is one of the reasons why the stand’s location is so important. Poverty and unhealthy eating habits are deeply entrenched in many parts of Pueblo County, Stetter said. In fact, the surrounding neighborhood meets USDA’s definition of a “food desert,” an area devoid of grocery stores.

“Lots of the little mom-and-pop stores have disappeared,” Stetter observed. As a result, people of limited means or mobility are often forced to shop at one of three nearby convenience stores.

Enhancing the neighborhood’s supply of fresh healthy food items is an important goal, but it’s the prescription food program that makes this stand especially unique.

Now in its third year, the program continues to grow, expanding from 11 weeks initially to 15 weeks this year. It now includes farm-fresh eggs and cheese as well as produce.

The prescription program is carefully planned and monitored, with patient privacy diligently maintained, Stetter explained.

“It’s a very structured program,” she said. “The food is funded by the agency or the clinical practice that selects the participants, so the participants do not have to pay for the food. In fact, a lot of them can’t afford good food. But it’s not a handout: there’s some responsibility on their part. They have to be willing to commit to it for 15 weeks, and that includes getting tested every week for various biometrics, having regular check-ups with their doctors, showing up for appointments, not eating poorly or letting the food go to waste.”

“We’re still getting all of the processes established,” she continued. “Next year at this time we plan to go year-round with the prescription program. Also next year, we’re looking beyond individuals to families whose kids are at risk. Over time we want to change the culture around food choices for these families, and, by doing that, change their health outlook.”

All of the stand’s food, which on a recent day included purple carrots, green-and-gold patty pan squash and San Luis Valley-grown quinoa, is provided by the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers cooperative. The produce is carefully portioned and packaged and priced affordably at $3 a bag. Quantities are intentionally kept small to minimize waste.

“We keep extremely close control of the quality,” Stetter said. “I know exactly which farms are involved and when everything was picked and that no pesticides were sprayed on it.”

The cooperative, which consists of around eight small organic farms across southern Colorado but is networked to other farms and food hubs, supplies excellent produce, swapping out one item for another when necessary, Stetter said. The bigger challenge has been finding the right participants for the prescription program, “people who really do want to change,” she said.

About six to eight doctors and their medical residents have written prescriptions for dozens of patients so far.

Not to be overlooked is the critical role of basic food and health education. Stetter said she has encountered people who never learned to cook, can’t tell an apricot from an orange, and whose kids have never tasted a fresh strawberry.

Stetter strives to incorporate food education in a fun format. Once a month she hosts “Walk with a Doc,” a morning jaunt around Lake Minnequa that allows for informal interaction between doctors and patients. Together with her summer intern, Cameron Giebel, a Pueblo native studying health promotion and wellness at CSU-Pueblo, she is also planning an end-of-season festival for Sept. 17 that will feature many family activities.

None of it could happen without teamwork and cooperation, Stetter emphasized. For example, a dedicated group of volunteers devote their Saturday mornings to helping run the stand, something they’ve done for the past three years.

“We’re helping the community,” said Helen Wiley, of why she volunteers, adding that she often takes home leftover produce to make a big pot of soup each week. Netta Trujillo said she was glad to help even on mornings so cold she was forced to huddle under blankets while nursing a cup of hot chocolate.

“I love meeting people and talking with the people who come out,” she said.

Stetter’s persistence, her willingness to go the extra mile, is the glue that holds it all together.

“She is a force to be reckoned with,” said Diana LaMorris, owner of Blue Raven Farm and current president of AVOG. By creating a model, she is making it possible for other hospitals and communities to adapt it without “reinventing the wheel,” LaMorris added.

Growing the food that goes into the program has been deeply gratifying, LaMorris said. She recalled one doctor who went so far out of his way to thank her family for their hard work and to convince them they were making a difference that it propelled them to keep farming another year, in spite of the inevitable frustrations.

“I love it, and I hate it,” she said of farming. “This year our tractor broke down. But I’m just thrilled to have people who are supporting us. It makes me feel like we’re in this adventure together.”

The prescription food program is still in its infancy, and so is AVOG, but Stetter believes the potential for both is great. She already coordinates a buying club for the hospital staff, but eventually she hopes to see the co-op’s supply network grow large enough to provide for all of the hospital’s food service needs, which involves feeding 1,300 people every day.

“It’s not quite possible for a small food hub network to do that yet, but five years from now, I think all of this is going to look very different,” she said.

Meanwhile, she can feel the hospital’s founder and namesake, Dr. Richard Corwin, smiling down on her. More than a century ago, he was ahead of his time in connecting the healthcare mission to the importance of access to fresh, healthy food, a legacy that continues today.