By Tara Bannow

The Bulletin

Fruits and veggies

Patty Kuratek, a nurse and diabetes educator with La Pine Community Health Center, directs patients to the website for information on incorporating more nutritious fruits and vegetables into their diets.

In the three months since her dietitian started giving her vouchers to buy fruits and vegetables, Esther Groat has shed more than 20 pounds from her 4-foot, 10-inch frame.

“I really needed it bad,” said the 56-year-old La Pine resident, who currently weighs 239 pounds and has type 2 diabetes. She’s lost a total of 38 pounds this year.

A typical dinner for Groat used to consist of meat, potatoes and gravy or maybe a pasta dish. These days, she’s cut meat out of her diet altogether. For dinner, she’ll stir fry some vegetables — onions, broccoli, carrots — and toss together a salad. For breakfast? Sometimes she’ll pair her coffee with an apple or some walnuts.

“I just turned into a health bug,” she said. “It helped me like 100 percent.”

The La Pine Community Health Center started its produce voucher program in early 2015 with the help of a grant from St. Charles Health System. The idea was simple: Identify patients who are overweight or obese with chronic medical conditions and who can’t afford healthy food and give them vouchers for fruits and vegetables from local grocery stores. The program is open to patients in La Pine, Christmas Valley and Gilchrist.

Groat is not alone. Charla DeHate, the clinic’s CEO, said in several cases the vouchers and support patients get from the clinic’s nurse and health educator provided the jump start they needed to get healthy. Many start exercising as well.

“When they begin seeing these results for themselves, it’s encouraging for them and it really has assisted some people in just truly turning their life around,” she said.

Patients who participate show up at the clinic to receive their voucher for $20 worth of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables every other week for six months. In return, they agree to be weighed, have their vital signs taken and to keep diaries of everything they eat.

Patty Kuratek, a nurse and diabetes educator with La Pine Community Health Center, said before the program, she had patients who regularly ate Hamburger Helper, Rice-A-Roni and fast and frozen food.

“We started seeing some of these diets and realized there is no way to manage diabetes or any health condition, really, on a diet like that,” she said. “That would have to be a big part of their medical treatment, really.”

The program has seen striking results. In 2015, the 76 people who received vouchers lost a combined total of 210 pounds, an average of 6.77 pounds per person. They lowered their systolic blood pressures by an average 9.5 points and their diastolic blood pressures by an average of 6.9 points.

The program was smaller this year due to a temporary lapse in funding, but the 50 people who have participated so far have lost a combined total of 129 pounds, or an average of 8.75 pounds each.

“We’re just systematically seeing decreases where we need decreases and increases where we need increases,” Kuratek said.

The program involves more than just vouchers. When patients show up at the clinic every other week, Kuratek goes over their food diaries and talks to them about the levels of calories, protein, potassium and other nutritional components they should look out for.

While Kuratek cautions she’s not the “food police,” she also checks out the types of produce people are buying and sometimes encourages more variety.

The Oregon Community Foundation has awarded the program a $15,000 grant. Fran Willis, the OCF’s donor relations officer in Central and Eastern Oregon, said she’s impressed by the “remarkable results” the program has seen so far.

“I feel like it really is part of a trend that we’re seeing, which is healing through healthy food,” she said. “It’s great to see this kind of program happening in a more traditional medical environment.”

Most of the people in the program rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food benefits to low-income individuals and families. Kuratek said she’s found that for many people, that program doesn’t provide enough money to buy the fresh produce they need. She’s hopeful, though, that even when they’re no longer receiving vouchers, patients will find ways to keep buying fruits and vegetables.

“I had one patient who, when he went off of the program because he had finished after six months, said, ‘What I’ve learned is my first $20 goes to fruits and vegetables,’” she said. “It’s an educational piece so they hopefully can come out the other end buying healthier foods with the dollars they do have.”

That’s what Groat plans to do. Her blood pressure is way down, she no longer needs her diabetes medication and she’s no longer having the breathing problems she had in the past.

“I’m going to keep doing this,” she said. “Even when the program ends, I will still continue eating the way I am now.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0304,