In times of crisis, we are reminded to “look for the helpers.” And, we’ve certainly heard that quite a lot over the last few months. It is worth saying it again, because we are very fortunate in the Mahoning Valley to have so many helpers here. And, we have helpers who are ready and willing not only to help those with the greatest but also to help each other. This approach centered on offering mutual aid and support is foundational to who and what the Healthy Community Partnership-Mahoning Valley (HCP-MV) is all about. As important as it is to HCP-MV to improve health, wellbeing, and health equity for residents in our two counties, we also continue to strive to improve the health, breadth, and strength of our relationships.

Here’s one story of how our helpers helped each other and built stronger, broader, healthier relationships in the process.

On an “ordinary” day, access to good food that is healthy and affordable is a challenge for many residents in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties. During the extraordinary circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, even more residents found themselves faced with this challenge, sometimes for the first time. While other residents familiar with jumping through hoops to find healthy food now had new or additional hurdles to jump over to find good food for themselves and their families.

The Help Network of Northeast Ohio, our local 211 social service referral system, saw a significant increase in call volume in the weeks following the start of the shutdowns to slow the spread of the virus. One of the top issues on the minds of callers was where they can find their next meal. With this increased need for food due to residents losing jobs as businesses shut down, feeding children at home due to school closures, or finding themselves unable to travel to grocery stores due to health concerns, there was an urgent need to create new strategies and partnerships to help families put good food on their tables. If people could no longer get to where the food was, the strategy must become how to get food to where people are.

In their own words, here are HCP-MV and community partners that identified opportunities to work differently together to serve their community in a time of crisis and found additional opportunities to continue working together as the world transitions and time moves us forward. Going back to the old ways of doing things, separately and apart, was not an option they were interested in. These helpers are committed to each other and working differently to create a better, healthier future. Starting by ensuring one of our most basic needs is fulfilled for the most vulnerable among us and finding ways to bring good food to all.

Fruit and Vegetable Rx Produce Prescription Boxes

  •  Bridget Lackey—Mercy Health

Since 2013 Mercy Health has provided the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRxP) to its patients. This program provides Mercy Health primary care physicians with access to vouchers to “prescribe” fruits and vegetables for patients for whom these foods are medically necessary as part of a specific, prescribed diet. Patients with prescriptions can use their vouchers at farmer’s markets supported by Mercy Health – Youngstown.

This year, there was now an unforeseen additional barrier to getting healthy foods for patients who are often the most vulnerable – the underserved, elderly, and individuals with longterm health conditions like  diabetes, heart disease, and cancer: COVID-19  

Getting to the farmers market was quickly identified as an issue for many participants with no clear or easy solution in sight. Fortunately, heads and hearts came together, and we able to explore delivery options to those unable to travel to shop safely in person. Thus, the partnership with SCOPE, RSVP, TNP, Lake-to-River Co-Op, and Mercy Health was formed– to provide that service to our FVRxP participants in Trumbull and Mahoning Counties.  Partners we are forever grateful as are our patients.

  • Melissa Miller—Lake to River Co-Op/Cultivate: A Co-Op Cafe

Lake-to-River Food Cooperative has a long history of collaboration with Mercy Health, beginning with the establishment of a Farmer’s Market inside the hospital nearly a decade ago. The earliest intention was to bring fresh, local products to the cafeteria, staff, hospital clients, and surrounding neighborhood. The project grew and took on more life as the Market outgrew the confines of the hospital and expanded to include the Fruit & Veggie Rx program.

“Area farmers, mostly from the more rural parts of Mahoning, Trumbull, and Ashtabula county, have developed real relationships with their customers at the Mercy Markets,” said Melissa Miller, Board President of the Lake-to-River Food Cooperative. “In this different and difficult year, farmers are as eager as ever to get fresh, healthy, nutrient-dense produce to their friends in more urban areas of the region.”

Given all the unknowns early this season, Lake-to-River was pleased to serve as the connection between farmers and the agencies working on this important project, putting together more than one thousand Produce Boxes already this season!  Sourcing produce, building boxes, finding space, working with the many collaborators-the farmer cooperative and its small staff are thrilled to know that so many Valley residents have broader access to the products they work so hard to grow and aggregate.

We hope that next year, our farmers and Fruit/Veggie Rx recipients can go back to meeting face-to-face; in the meantime we’re thankful for all of our partners in this project and their continued support of local farmers and food makers in the Mahoning Valley

  • Cassandra Clevenger—Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership

Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership (TNP) has offered support for the Mercy Health Fruit and Vegetable program by working with partners to plan an easy to reach access point for locally grown foods in the Warren Community. In April and May, TNP opened its doors literally, at its garage located at 736 Mahoning Avenue to help create a drive through where Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRxP) participants could pick up their produce boxes easily and volunteers could stay dry if it happened to rain—or even snow. TNP will continue to partner throughout the summer by organizing the distribution of more boxes of fresh and locally grown produce one a month to FVRxP customers at the Warren Farmers Market. Customers who have SNAP benefits can also double their dollars to buy fresh and healthy produce, every Tuesday at Perkins Park from 3pm to 6pm at Perkins Park near the Warren Amphitheater.

  • Mike Wilson — SCOPE Senior Center

Mercy Health’s 2020 Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRxP) was intended to provide early access to fruits and vegetables to program participants. But, because of COVID-19, the program had to be adjusted to ensure the safety of program participants since they are especially vulnerable to the virus. The ‘Fresh Produce Box’ program and partnership with RSVP Mahoning Valley, TNP, Mercy Health, and SCOPE Senior Services was created to provide free fruits and vegetables to the elderly who are mostly homebound.

Since the SCOPE food truck delivers four days a week to over 100 citizens it was ideal for the organizations to team up to provide this service to our homebound elderly citizens. The bulk of those served live in a “food desert” as outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture so to receive fresh produce from Mercy Health is vital. That designation accounts for half of the City of Warren and many rural areas within Trumbull County which are not in close proximity to a full service grocery store. Food deserts have been studied with surveys and farmers market programming planned by Trumbull Neighborhood Partners for the past five years.

  • Leah Sakacs—Senior Support Action Group

The Senior Support Action Group was forged and continues to grow as a collaboration between SCOPE, Shepherd of the Valley, RSVP, and other community partners to deliver food boxes to seniors and persons who are disabled and/or immuno-compromised. The collaboration began as a response to the pandemic to meet the basic food needs of seniors and other persons. With SCOPE’s experience of delivering food boxes in Trumbull County, Mahoning County adopted and adapted the program model to best serve its population. The action group quickly realized that this need for food delivery (food otherwise that would be picked-up at a food bank or pantry) was not a new need and the service would be needed in the long-term. 

As the action group continued to rally volunteers to make the deliveries, another partnership was formed with Mercy Health to assist in the delivery of their produce boxes to a similar population of persons unable to pick-up the produce boxes. The reasons for not being able to pick-up the boxes are varied, including disability, being immuno-compromised, lack of transportation, and a plain fear of becoming ill due to the pandemic. 

SCOPE, with five years of experience, manages the food box and Mercy Health produce box deliveries in Trumbull County while RSVP oversees the deliveries in Mahoning County.

ACTION Grab ‘n Go Meals

  • Melissa Miller—Lake to River Co-Op/Cultivate: A Co-Op Cafe

Lake-to-River Food Cooperative/Cultivate Café was established, in some part, due to ACTION’s long focus on the lack of healthy food options in the City of Youngstown and throughout the Mahoning Valley.  Their Healthy Food Task Force has worked to address food insecurity and their support of a market on the northside of Youngstown, at the Lake-to-River Co-op Market, has been ongoing for nearly a decade.

When the pandemic hit and many people lost their jobs, schools closed, and going out for groceries felt impossible, ACTION reached out to the Common Wealth Kitchen Incubator (CWKI) about hot meals for seniors and other Valley residents impacted by COVID19. Sean Dougherty, CWKI Manager, brainstormed the way for a win/win/win situation by donating kitchen time to ACTION and utilizing the already-trained staff at Cultivate Café to serve the community.

Cultivate Café’s staff, which uses CWKI as their prep kitchen, was also impacted by state-mandated restaurant closures. Susan Payton, Café Manager, with years of catering experience and safe food handling, was a great fit to pull together healthy, nutritious, budget-friendly meals. Cultivate staff prepares between 250-300 hot meals each week and, working with ACTION staff and volunteers, readies them for pick up and delivery throughout the Mahoning Valley. 

At this point in the project it’s a finely-tuned process, with meals prepared and out the door so people can enjoy them for dinner. Working with the faith-based organizations in the Youngstown area has been a pleasure; getting to know the faces (behind the masks!) of the many good people who donate their time and vehicles to deliver meals and brighten peoples’ day is so uplifting for us. We’re excited about our next collaboration with ACTION and Christ Centered Church on Hudson Avenue in Youngstown providing weekly lunches for school-age children up to age 18 throughout the summer. 

  • Ron Fasano—ACTION