Participants at a Cooking Matters class. (Courtesy photo)

Picture the average Tellurider and what comes to mind? A yoga-addicted runner and skier who eats well?

This is true for many members of the local community, but the flip side — also true — is someone holding down two or more jobs, struggling to afford fresh fruit and vegetables and lacking the time or know-how to do anything with that fresh produce once it’s bought.

Enter the FoodRx program, a Tri-County Health Network (TCHNetwork) initiative that aims to make fresh fruit and vegetables more accessible to those who need them.

TCHNetwork initially piloted FoodRx in Norwood, through the Uncompahgre Medical Center, and in the West End via the Basin Clinic in Naturita.

Now, thanks in part to a three-year grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the Telluride Regional Medical Center has joined in the program.

Medical center healthcare providers refer patients to FoodRx, which is overseen in Telluride by Sydney Melzer, a TRMC care manager. Participants receive $120 in vouchers over seven weeks that they can then use to buy fresh fruit and vegetables at Clark’s Market, as well as from the Fresh Food Hub in Norwood, which delivers to the Carhenge parking lot weekly.

The ideal candidate, according to TCHNetwork Director of Strategic Initiatives Rasa Kaunelis, is anyone facing chronic disease or food insecurity.

“This area is very diverse socio-economically and ethnically,” she said. “We tend to think of the stereotypical Telluridian as someone who is super healthy, who is climbing mountains and skiing, but a lot of folks are here that do not fit that mold, especially the folks who are supporting the local economy.”

She continued, “They may be working an hourly job, two hourly jobs, three hourly jobs, and struggling to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. They may be struggling to cook with them, too, because they are working so much and just don’t have the time to think about what to buy and about meal planning.”

With that in mind, the program not only helps participants buy fresh fruits and vegetables, but also figure out what to do with the produce once they get it home. They keep a food log and meet regularly with Melzer.

Said Kaunelis, “This program gives participants the space to bounce ideas off Sydney, to talk about recipes, what they are going to purchase, what they are going to cook and how they will cook it. I think that’s a luxury that some people don’t have, especially if they are working multiple jobs, taking care of their families, taking care of themselves, potentially living with a mental illness or chronic disease and working in seasonal employment. There are a lot of challenges.”

Community Health Programs Supervisor Lily Kiely at TCHNetwork oversees the running of the program for the nonprofit and explained that helping community members overcome these challenges is key.

“The program is trying to remove these barriers and provide the resources, the tools and the knowledge to hopefully carry [participants] into healthy habits,” she said.

Kiely added that the seasonal nature of the local economy can be a challenge too.

“I think another important issue in Telluride is that a lot of people work seasonal jobs,” she said. “Right now, they may have a steady income, but come spring or fall, they don’t really know when their next job might start. This program will continue throughout the year, which will help.”

Bringing FoodRx to Telluride follows on the success of the pilot programs in Norwood and the West End. Both also offered access to Cooking Matters, another TCHNetwork initiative, where participants learn to shop, prepare and eat well on a budget. Cooking Matters is available in Telluride too.

“Through the FoodRx program, the Cooking Matters classes and partnerships with our healthcare providers, participants in Norwood and the West End reported improved health outcomes,” Kaunelis said. “All of these programs together, over a period of time, are what make a difference to overall health.”

There were additional pluses to the pilot programs that organizers look forward to replicating in Telluride, according to Kaunelis.

“The program had some interesting additional benefits,” she said. “In the West End, for example, the farmers’ markets accepted the vouchers. The participants would go to the farmers’ markets — often for the first time — and talk to the venders and talk to their neighbors. It really broke down the social isolation that people were facing.”

Kaunelis pointed to the economic benefits, too.

“We’re hoping to add the local farmers’ markets [to the Telluride program],” she said. “When the season turns and the Fresh Food Hub gets some more locally grown fruits and vegetables, we hope that we’ll have more participants opting to try this locally grown produce, which has a benefit for local growers.”

And then there are the Brussels sprouts.

“We did hear from individuals within the community that stores were beginning to bring in new produce like Brussels sprouts,” Kiely said. “People had never seen Brussels sprouts being sold in one of the West End markets before, but because they were hearing about them [through FoodRx and Cooking Matters] and trying them, the stores started ordering them and they were selling out. So, I think we are starting to see this bigger movement in terms of bringing in new produce where maybe the demand wasn’t there previously.”

She added, “We think there has been a shift that will start to improve health outcomes overall.”

Said Kaunelis, “When I heard that, I thought it was the program’s most impressive outcome because it is impacting the community as a whole. At Tri-County Health Network, we are working to improve individual health, but also population health.

“That is the type of change that can improve the health of the entire population.”