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Food pharmacy for diabetics launched in Redwood City

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Redwood City Free Clinic Medical Director Dr. Jason Wong gives a tour of the food pharmacy’s pantry. (Brendan Bartholomew/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Managing diabetes can be difficult for patients with very low incomes, some health care providers say, because the fresh and nutrient-dense foods that might slow the disease’s progression are sometimes difficult to afford.

To meet this need, Samaritan House has launched what it believes is California’s first “food pharmacy” at its Redwood City Free Clinic. Under the one-year pilot program, clients of the free clinic receive prescriptions for the foods their doctor thinks will help keep their diabetes under control.

Patients fill their prescriptions for free at an on-site food pantry. Decorated with paintings by students from Central Middle School in San Carlos, the pantry is about as cheery as a room full of groceries can be. The groceries are provided by the Second Harvest Food Bank, and the project receives funding from the Sequoia Healthcare District.

For now, clients are encouraged to visit the food pharmacy twice per month, and take enough food each time to feed their entire family for three or four days.

But that’s just the start, according to Samaritan House CEO Bart Charlow.

“Our goal is to have funding so whole families can be fed throughout the month,” Charlow said, adding it’s important to provide food for a patient’s immediate family members because many client families don’t have the time or means to prepare separate meals.

And because family members often have the same inherited risk factors, Charlow noted those who do not currently have a diabetes diagnosis might benefit from the healthier foods their relatives bring home from the free pantry.

Many of the Redwood City Free Clinic’s patients are among the working poor, according to Dr. Jason Wong, the health center’s medical director. And because patients often hold multiple jobs, Wong noted, they sometimes don’t have time to shop for healthy foods.

The American Diabetes Association recommends diabetics eat more vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins, and choose whole-grain foods over those made with refined grains or flours. The organization also recommends avoiding excess salt, high calorie snack foods and foods high in saturated or trans fats.

Following those guidelines, Wong noted, can be a challenge for low-income patients.

“When you’re strapped for money, you tend to go for foods that are filling, but not nutrient dense,” Wong said.

The food pharmacy is well stocked with items consistent with eating guidelines for diabetics. But because some clients might not be familiar with some of the foods, cooking demos designed by a Second Harvest nutritionist will be provided.

One example of a food type that can be used in a novel way is the spaghetti squash, Wong explained. And a future cooking demo will teach participants how to cook the squash, and substitute its spaghetti-like innards for noodles, to create “pasta” dishes without all the starch and carbohydrates found in real spaghetti.

The Redwood City Free Clinic serves patients who are uninsured. To become a client, phone (650) 839-1447 or visit samaritanhousesanmateo.org.