Louisiana Healthcare Connections Supports Community Garden in Opelousas

With the support of Louisiana Healthcare Connections, Southwest Louisiana Primary Care (SWLPHC) in Opelousas, La., has taken an innovative approach to addressing nutrition-related illnesses among its patients and local residents by planting a community garden that will provide fresh produce along with an opportunity to learn more about healthy, nutritional practices.

According to Leone F. Elliott, Jr., MD, MBA, the medical director for SWLPHC, the idea for the garden was a direct response to escalating incidences of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension among the practice’s patients.

“The majority of our patients kept saying it was too expensive to eat healthy, and that was the reason they avoided making the necessary adjustments to their diets,” says Elliott. “We wanted to impress upon them how the importance of mindful, healthy eating includes an increase in whole foods and a significant decrease in processed foods. We believed the best way we could achieve this was to roll up our sleeves and show them it was possible. We felt that if we could be an example to the community, then they can eventually make the connection that this is a viable solution for how to take ownership of their health and specifically, what they consume.”

To achieve that ownership, SWLPHC, with a community grant from Louisiana Healthcare Connections and the support of local residents, built a garden at their practice comprised of 12 4’ x 8’ raised beds and began inviting patients and local residents to register to receive fresh produce when it’s in season. Since its launch in June of 2018, SWLPHC has provided fresh produce to more than 40 patients and residents, with registrants receiving the vegetables every other week during peak growing seasons.

According to SWLPHC Family Nurse Practitioner Darin Lastrapes, the garden is providing Opelousas residents with other benefits in addition to increased access to fresh foods. These benefits include gardening education, regular exercise, and improved mental health.

“While we do want patients signing up to receive produce from the garden, more importantly, we want patients, their families and Opelousas residents engaged with the garden from planting to harvesting,” said Lastrapes, “It’s our deep desire to improve participants’ mental health and to provide exercise through our gardening activities.”

SWLPHC will be tracking health data to identify any impact on Hemoglobin A1c (blood sugar) among participating patients and, to date, their strategy of ensuring access to healthy food at the point of care has increased dialogue around food and nutrition among participating patients.

“It has definitely sparked a lot of dialogue between our patients and their providers,” said Elliott. “Our patients now tell us about their own gardens and even share information about what to plant during which growing seasons. I strongly believe this is a step in the right direction. Simple, actionable steps like this go a long way in building trust and improving outcomes in the community.”

SWLPHC’s project aligns with Louisiana Healthcare Connections’ goal of reducing food insecurity in the state, said Kendra Case, COO of the Healthy Louisiana Medicaid plan. According to Case, Louisiana Healthcare Connections has identified food insecurity as one of the most serious negative influences on health outcomes among its more than 460,000 members. In response, Louisiana Healthcare Connections has been actively working to partner with community organizations and healthcare providers across the state to support, develop, and implement programs that improve access to healthy foods.

“Addressing food insecurity, not just among our members but within the communities where they live and work, is an integral component in improving health outcomes in Louisiana,” said Case. “Supporting innovative projects like the community garden at Southwest Louisiana Primary Care aligns with our mission of transforming the health of the community, one person at a time, and we are proud to be a part of it.”