Graduation Day for Fresh Fork Market Program Participants

December 16, 2022

ST. LOUIS - Brenda Dillingham, 59, has struggled with high blood pressure for years, but when she lost her insurance four years ago, she stopped going to her primary care doctor. During a recent emergency visit to Mercy Hospital St. Louis, she was referred to Mercy Clinic Primary Care in Ferguson where she could benefit from a first-of-its-kind collaborative program between Mercy and Operation Food Search.

Mercy doctor's coat Debra Lee shops in the Fresh Fork Market at Mercy Clinic Ferguson.

Fresh Fork Market is a program that aims to make a big impact in health outcomes of certain patients. Registered participants, adult patients with hypertension and/or diabetes and who are experiencing food insecurity, have the opportunity to discover new foods and try new recipes.

Each Wednesday for 12 weeks, participants shop for refrigerated, fresh and shelf-stable food items, all at no cost. They take home the equivalent of three meals for the family each week during the program. But the bigger impact for the participants is learning how to eat healthy and what to avoid.

“What I thought I knew, I threw out the window,” said Debra Lee, 68, who struggles with diabetes and high blood pressure. “Advice from others isn’t always right, and I found out some friends didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Dillingham concurred and added, “I got a lot of mixed information from well-meaning family and friends. Where I came from, it’s normal not to eat right. This program has been eye opening to help me make better choices.”

The Operation Food Search team provides on-site cooking demonstrations, tastings and education to give patients the information they need to eat healthier and manage their health challenges. ​​​​​​​

The goals of the program are to improve patient engagement with their health care providers and community clinic, as well as help improve their overall health and wellness.

Beverly Shaw, 65, was excited to share she used all the healthy recipes for Thanksgiving. She used unsalted butter, added turnips, spinach and kale into her greens, and opted for whole grain noodles. “No one noticed,” Shaw said. “People tell me I already knew how to cook. But I wasn’t giving it flavor, and I’m learning.”

Shaw walks her grandson to school, rain or shine, and has noticed a difference since starting the program, beyond better blood pressure. 

Mercy doctor's coat The morning graduation group from the first session of the Fresh Fork Market at Mercy Clinic Ferguson.

“I am able to walk almost two miles round trip without getting out of breath or stopping,” she said, adding she recently quit smoking, too. “I’m now up before my grandson, I feel different, and my taste buds are coming back.”

The results are proof this program is working. Dillingham’s blood pressure at the beginning of the program was 173/95. Just 12 weeks later, it’s down to 135/92. Others’ results are similar.

While she said her daughter was always on her to eat better, it was nice to have the program.

“It’s wonderful to know someone cares and is there to teach you how to eat right and do better to live longer. I feel better with knowledge,” she said. “It was a wake-up call.”