Physicians prescribe fresh food from their new garden

BRISTOL — As a child, you may have been given a lollipop or a sticker after braving a doctor’s visit. At Bristol’s Mountain Health Center, you’ll probably get a few tomatoes and a bag of spinach.
The modern twist on giving a treat after a doctor’s visit is feasible because of a new garden outside the Health Center office featuring healthy options such as tomatoes, spinach, arugula and kale.
As part of a developing focus on preventative care, the health center has constructed a series of raised beds outside its office that are open to all — physicians, patients and surrounding community members alike. The goal is to encourage patients to live as healthily as possible, starting with the cornerstone of health: food.
Physician Jeff Wulfman developed the idea of a community garden in part through the health center’s developing focus on preventative care — what adult nurse practitioner Suzanne Germain called a “focus on health more than on disease.”
“The foundations of health start with the basics, what people put in their mouths and the choices they make,” Wulfman said. “I thought it would be a good idea for us to be an example for that, and to practice what we preach.”
As well as offering primary care, the health center is invested in encouraging patients to lead healthier lives, and now offers free-of-charge nutritional and dietary counseling. Nutritionist David Hernandez comes into the health center once a week to offer nutritional guidance to patients. Wulfman noted the Hernandez has a focus on whole foods that many patients won’t find elsewhere.
The three raised beds outside the health center entrance are already bursting with spinach, tomatoes, lettuce, broccoli, cabbage and arugula as well as various herbs and even hot peppers. Wulfman said he hopes to later expand the garden to hold more plants, but for now the garden produces more than enough vegetables for the health center staff to pick each day for lunch.
“The idea behind the project was to provide a space of beauty and solace for people coming here,” said Corinne Almquist, a nursing student interning at the health center. “(It’s) also as a demonstration to show how it’s possible to grow quite a lot of food in a pretty small space. It’s the first thing patients see when they come in, and we’ve gotten so much positive feedback.”
Almquist, who has two more years at Yale’s nursing school, helped plan the garden as part of the community outreach aspect of her three-week internship there.
“It’s been a big community effort… a patient here actually volunteered to build some beds, so he put those together,” Almquist said. “Everyone has been pitching in to help out.”
Almquist began the garden with a mix of seeds and pre-grown plants sourced from Middlebury’s Elmer Farm; Kevin Harper, owner of the complex in which the health center is located, brought in manure from his horse farm in Starksboro to fill the wooden beds. 
Community members are encouraged to plant or take whatever they would like, and it’s common to find health practitioners picking a few leaves of lettuce for lunch. Wulfman has also volunteered to help maintain the garden after Almquist returns to school in the fall.
While the garden is in its early stages, Almquist remains optimistic that the garden will continue in her absence.
“I think now that patients have seen it, and have been so supportive of it, I think they will be willing to pitch in and lend a hand. This was very much the first pilot of this project and there have been a lot of really positive responses from people.”
“Vision wise,” Wulfman added, “I hope we would expand to not only have food, but flowers and things people could take on their way home after a visit… Something to eat or make their home prettier. Pick a little lettuce, or a tomato, and chew on it on your way home.” 

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