🍎A 'food farmacy' in Newark offers meds and food all in one place

🍎The goal is to address two disparities: food and transportation

🍎Residents can improve their health needs with this new program

NEWARK — Patients visiting Saint James Health can now have a doctor’s appointment, get prescriptions filled, and shop for groceries in the “food farmacy” all in one place in one trip.

RWJ Barnabas Health received state funding aimed at underserved communities of Newark, said Balpreet Grewal-Virk, senior vice president of community health.

No matter where anyone goes in Newark, the two big disparities that come into play often are food and transportation. Grewal-Virk and her team did wanted to use these state funds to address issues of health equity, access to care, and health outcomes in  Newark.

Saint James Health, Lafayette Street, Newark (Google Street View)
Saint James Health, Lafayette Street, Newark (Google Street View)

Both programs serve patients of Saint James Health Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) at 228 Lafayette St., in the Ironbound section of the city.

In New Jersey, about 800,000 residents face hunger every day. Sections of Newark have been designated among the top 10 food deserts in the state by the New Jersey Economic and Development Authority, Grewal-Virk said.

The thought was to have residents who are shopping in the clinical care unit for their medication needs, to allow them to shop for other needs in one trip, like food, she said.

“Why not make it more convenient for them? Now, they are only going to one location for all that under one umbrella and all these people are walking out with their food needs covered, their pharma needs covered, and their clinical care,” Grewal-Virk said.

Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark
Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark

How Does the Food “Farmacy” Work?

A patient must have a doctor’s appointment at Saint James or come in with a referral. Once the patient is evaluated and prescribed a medication, that script is often fulfilled on the spot.

The food “farmacy” focuses on the needs of the patient. It’s not just about walking out with a bag of food. This is about the primary care physician recognizing that a patient needs a recommendation on food habits, Grewal-Virk said.

The PCP will refer the patient to the registered dietician who is in the same building at the Saint James location. She will do an hour-long consult with the patient, tweak their diet accordingly, understand their ailment, and what type of foods they have access to, make recommendations, and then help them shop for healthy food, she explained.

“At the same time, we also connect the patients with SNAP education and if they’re SNAP eligible, and if they’re not, we actually have a community health worker that we’ve also hired that’s onsite that helps that patient with Medicaid to become SNAP eligible,” Grewal-Virk said.

After the consultation, there is food available for free. There are fresh fruits, vegetables, lettuce, kale, eggs, turnips, carrots, shelf-stable food, baked breads, etc, as well as diapers.

Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark
Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark

RWJ Barnabas Health and Saint James have two food partners to help provide these nutritious groceries for patients: The Community Food Bank of New Jersey and Urban Agriculture Cooperative, which is keen on getting local New Jersey farm foods to the location.

Patients are left to shop on their own based on nutritional recommendations from the PCP.
“It’s more of an experience. It’s definitely not ‘Here’s some food.’ It’s about working with that patient, making them feel wholesome, making sure there’s this essence of dignity to everything and ultimately, improving their health,” she said.

Since the food “farmacy” opened in February, RWJ Barnabas Health and Saint James Health have given out 3,703 pounds of food. The registered dietician has had close to 200 consults, and 45 households have been supported through the program, Grewal-Virk said.

Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark
Food Farmacy at Saint James Health, Newark


State funds are also being used to support the patient population with Uber rides. For example, if someone needs to go to Saint James to see the doctor, get a prescription filled, and shop for food, an Uber ride will be provided from their home to Saint James and back to their home once they’ve completed their needs at the “farmacies.”

Moving Forward

While the Saint James food “farmacy” is for Newark residents, Grewal-Virk said the program has expanded to Jersey City Medical Center in Jersey City, Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center in West Orange, and New Brunswick.

“As we’re going through the different cities, we are recognizing the food need, the transportation need, and embedding those community health workers where we see fit,” she said.

A food hub will also be built in the City of Newark next year. This is one spot where fresh farm food will arrive from New Jersey farmers, all grown locally, to one location and distributed to FQHCs in need. This has never been done before, Grewal-Virk said.

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