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How a Goochland group is ensuring neighbors have access to fresh, healthy food

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Posted at 6:03 PM, Mar 28, 2024

GOOCHLAND, Va. -- A key ingredient to overall health is nutrition, and on the final days of National Nutrition Month — a campaign to better educate everyone about making healthy eating decisions — a local organization helping rural neighbors is sharing their recipe to improving the lives of those living on low income.

GoochlandCares is a nonprofit free clinic providing wrap-around, holistic services through 12 different programs, including a community food bank.

Sally Graham is a nurse practitioner by profession and brings her experience from that realm to her role running GoochlandCares.

“For me personally, it’s been an opportunity to really figure out what are all the pieces that go into making somebody’s quality of life, to making somebody healthy," Graham said. "You can't be healthy if you're hungry. Your children don't do well in school if they don't have enough to eat. So, food is foundational to a healthy lifestyle.”

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Sally Graham

A massive barrier to that is food insecurity, which a significant number of Goochland residents experience at various points in time. In 2023, more than 2,000 clients, including several hundred children, utilized the food bank program at GoochlandCares, which provided 534,014 meals worth of food.

Graham said in the years following the pandemic, several factors have led to an increase in the number of people seeking their help.

"We're back over 300 families per week. We're finding that families who maybe in the past came once or twice a month are coming every week. Inflation, food stamps, all those trends really impact the need," she said.

Rural counties like Goochland face major transportation issues for residents trying to access fresh, healthy foods. Goochland County is about 40 miles long, and Graham said many of their clients have to travel 15 to 20 miles to reach their centrally located building.

A grocery store is a different matter entirely.

"The western part of Goochland is the food desert. We have a grocery store in Goochland where we are now, but until you get to Fork Union, there's no grocery store. So even if you had a little bit of transportation, or could ride your bike or something, you wouldn't be able to get there," Graham said.

Despite those challenges, Goochland Cares has made it an emphasis to educate their medical clients at the free clinic on how nutrition impacts their overall health outlook.

"I think we think everyone knows: eat better and you'll do better, but it's the access to it too," said Heather Buzzard, the clinic coordinator at GoochlandCares. “We have doctors that will literally walk patients over to the food pantry and say, you have high blood pressure, you need to avoid this section of foods, pick choices like these with lower salt and fresh produce. Kind of invest them in their own success for treating whatever is going on.”

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Heather Buzzard

Buzzard said their volunteer doctors and nurses stepped up their nutritional education efforts in recent months, after attending several workshops and seminars on the importance of treating food as a means of medicine for under-served populations.

"When they have their labs reviewed, they're like, oh, okay, so it did have an impact, and it is creating a better healthy environment for me," Buzzard said. "We're looking at healthy recipes and printing them out and making it part of their shopping experience, too. Maybe you don't know how to use lentils, but here's a good way to use them that's tasty and healthy.”

Graham and Buzzard said there are a couple of misconceptions about food insecurity, particularly in more rural areas like Goochland.

Many times, they find people who are not experiencing hunger don't know their neighbors might be going through it.

"It's just easy not to think about people being hungry, especially in your own community, especially in a county like Goochland that has so much wealth. It's just beyond people's comprehension, that there are people in Goochland that go hungry," Graham said.

They also find clients often feel stigmatized asking for help or worry they might not qualify to receive services.

"Just that stigma — that if you need help it's socially unacceptable in some way — is disheartening for all of us here because we wouldn't exist if we didn't want to help the neighbors and sometimes, that's where life leads you," Buzzard said. "It is a very welcoming place, but you don't know it until you walk in that door. So if you think you need help, come in the front door and let us see what we can do for you."

You can learn more about all the services provided by Goochland Cares on their website.

In the immediate, those who might want to help out with their nutrition mission can take part in the annual food drive. It is happening from April 1 to 27, and the goal is to collect 45,000 pounds of food.

Last year, they collected nearly that amount, and it was gone in four months.

For more information on how you can contribute, please reach out to Dominic Alexander at 804-556-0400.

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