By Katie Dafoe-Raymond, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
The burst of sweet juice from a bite of a cool, refreshing watermelon or a mouth-watering peach. The smell of a freshly cut, ripe cantaloupe. The crunch of local sweet corn or snap of a peapod.
Nothing says “summer” quite like fresh produce from a local farm or garden. Despite the uncertainty, increased food insecurity, and isolation of the past year, WestMass ElderCare has consistently brought the comfort of the familiar to consumers’ doorsteps, nourishing body and soul by increasing accessibility of favorite fresh fruits and vegetables.
WMEC’s fresh food and nutrition programs are a testament to the collaboration of federal, state, and local organizations. We are funded by the Executive Office of Elder Affairs (EOEA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), and we team up every summer and fall with McKinstry’s Market Garden in Chicopee to provide delicious local produce to eligible older adults in our communities.
In addition, WMEC helps to meet the nutritional needs of our home-delivered meal consumers throughout the year by providing two fresh, frozen, or canned fruits or vegetables in every meal and fruits as a dessert 3 times a week.
Partnering with McKinstry’s Market Garden
As a working farm for well over 100 years and passed down through six generations of farmers, McKinstry’s is a local landmark specializing in farm-fresh produce. WestMass ElderCare and McKinstry’s Market Garden have partnered for almost 20 years to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to eligible WMEC consumers. “We bring the farm to the homebound elders by bringing the produce bags to them,” states Lisa Lovell, WestMass ElderCare Nutrition Department Director. Although the program started out small, it has now grown to home delivery of 400 produce bags and distribution of 850 farmers’ market coupons – each worth $25 – to local Councils on Aging, who then distribute the coupons to older adults in their communities. In addition, other WMEC consumers who are members of certain managed care organizations can receive fresh produce boxes.
This summer consumers have already received a wide range of seasonal favorites, including sweet corn, blueberries, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, carrots, beets, potatoes, and cantaloupe; winter squash, potatoes, apples, peaches, and plums will be delivered later this season. “I wish you could see the look on the consumer’s face when they receive the produce. They just light up,” reports Mary Wetzel of WestMass ElderCare’s Nutrition Team. According to Nicole McKinstry from McKinstry’s Farm, every year she receives calls and letters from WestMass ElderCare consumers grateful for the fresh fruits and vegetables from their farm. People “appreciate that we think of them even though they are homebound,” she says. “I’m proud of what WestMass ElderCare does for the community and I’m proud that they chose McKinstry Farm to be part of that mission.”
Fruits & Veggies: Nutrition Basics
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, two of the core elements that make up a healthy diet include vegetables of all types (dark green, red and orange, beans, peas, and lentils, starchy, etc.) and fruits, especially whole fruit. The Dietary Guidelines recommends consuming:
- 2-2 ½ cup equivalents of vegetables (amount varies by individual caloric needs) AND
- 1 ½ to 2 cup equivalents of fruit per day (amount varies by individual calorie needs)
The average person over the age of 60 does not meet these goals. Because WestMass ElderCare makes fruits and vegetables more accessible through Meals on Wheels, home delivery of produce bags, and farmers’ market coupons, consumers are closer to meeting these fruit and vegetable goals than may otherwise be possible.
To help apply the recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines, the USDA’s MyPlate recommends making ½ your plate a variety of fruits and vegetables. Eating a rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables ensures getting a wider range of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Phytonutrients (pronounced like fight-oh-nutrients), also known as phytochemicals, are natural compounds in plants that protect the plant from fungi, illness, and other threats. It might help to think, “phyt–o-nutrients fight to protect the plant and will protect people if they eat them.” Phytonutrients give fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Some also act as antioxidants. Proposed benefits of eating phytonutrients include protection from cancer and inflammation, and improved heart, eye, and lung health. Some phytonutrients are:
- beta-carotene (found in orange and dark, leafy green vegetables like sweet potato, carrots, cantaloupe, spinach, and broccoli)
- lycopene (red veggies and fruits like tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelon, red peppers)
- lutein (green veggies and fruit like collard greens, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce)
- resveratrol (red grapes and red wine)
- anthocyanidins (red and purple veggies and fruits like berries, red onions, red potatoes)
- isoflavones (soybeans)
Antioxidants are substances in foods that protect against damage from free radicals that may contribute to the development of cancer, heart disease, and stroke – all diagnoses especially relevant in our over 60 population. Antioxidants found in some fruits and vegetables include beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamins A, C, and E.
Other benefits of fruits and vegetables include:
- promoting healthy blood pressure as part of a balanced diet
- helping prevent constipation by providing fiber to bulk up the stool so it moves more easily through the intestines (Note: if adding more fruits, vegetables, and other fiber sources to the diet, make the change slowly over several weeks and consume adequate fluids)
- adding a low-calorie food to the plate to promote a feeling of fullness in people trying to lose weight
Fruits & Veggies: Nutrition Education Empowers Consumers
Although the produce helps bring consumers closer to meeting their nutrient needs, it is not enough if the consumers do not know how to use what they are given. WestMass ElderCare therefore also educates consumers on how to use and benefit from some of the fresh produce they receive. Handouts with recipes and nutrient info, an educational handout on the back of every monthly menu, and fun activities like monthly Nutrition BINGO help empower consumers to get more out of their seasonal produce.
Fruits & Veggies: Looking Forward
Delivering fresh produce helps our consumers meet their nutrient needs in a delicious and easy way. As WMEC Case Manager Chris Grady reports, “people love the produce bags. People that received the bags in the past called even before we started the program this year to see if the bags were coming.” WMEC looks forward to continuing our partnership with McKinstry’s and providing fresh local fruits and vegetables to consumers for many years to come.
Fall Recipe: Classic Butternut Squash Soup (Serves 3)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
½ carrot, diced
½ celery stalk, diced
½ onion, diced, soaked in cold water for 10 minutes then drained
2 cups cubed butternut squash
¼ teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth or veg. broth
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
Salt to taste (optional)
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat.
- Add carrot, celery, onion. Cook 3-4 minutes or until vegetables are translucent.
- Add butternut squash, thyme, broth, pepper and (optional) salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes or until butternut squash is soft when fork is inserted.
- Cool soup, then puree in blender.
Recipe revised from Whole Foods Market.
Tip to Peeling Butternut Squash: prick the skin all over with a fork, cut off the ends, put on a microwaveable plate, then microwave for about 3 ½ minutes to soften the skin. Let cool and then peel with a vegetable peeler. Remove the seeds with a spoon.
Info adapted from Tasting Table.