Connecting older Hoosiers to free fresh produce to improve health outcomes


By Kristen LaEace and Neil Steffens

Guest columnists

Many Indiana seniors report having difficulty maintaining a healthful diet, which increases risks of chronic diseases and reduced quality of life.

Low-income older adults across the state not only aren’t getting enough to eat, many don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. This access to nutritious food is a key driver of health that impacts quality health outcomes.

To address these risks, Indiana’s 15 Area Agencies on Aging are offering the new “Produce for Better Health” program statewide, which provides biweekly boxes of fresh produce to the agencies’ congregate meal site participants. Older adults age 60+ and individuals with disabilities are eligible to participate. This initiative is funded by the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation and is facilitated by the Indiana Association of Area Agencies on Aging Education Institute. The program’s overall goal is to alleviate older adult hunger while improving overall health.

Participants typically pick up a box of produce every other week at the meal site or have produce delivered to their home. They are then required to track and report several health statistics including weight and blood pressure to determine outcomes of adding fresh produce to their diet. This data is being evaluated by the Indiana University Center for Aging Research (IUCAR) to determine the program’s impact on clinical indicators. Nearly 2,000 participants across the state are already registered for the Produce for Better Health Program with 38% being diabetic, 69% having high blood pressure and 42% report having “less than good” health.

We’ve already seen promising initial results and feedback from our participants through this community collaboration across the state where we have delivered nearly 3,500 fresh produce meal packages encompassing more than 32,000 pounds of food. Among the entire cohort, IUCAR has already documented a statistically significant decrease in body weight and blood pressure.

“I finally went to the doctor! I haven’t been in years. But my blood pressure reading was so high that the site manager said I really should get checked out. Thank goodness I did! I’m seeing a dietician now, have lost 16 lbs., I’m on blood pressure meds and found out I’m diabetic. I could have died. I’m doing so much better now. Who knows what might have happened.” 65-year-old Owen County Female

“The box of produce is wonderful! I sometimes have difficulty getting to the store, to have fresh produce delivered is a blessing. This will help me to get back to healthier eating.” 60-year-old Marion County male

“I participate in the CICOA meal site weekly, it is gratifying to see both weight and blood pressure improvements after only 7 weeks in the Produce for Better Health program.” 85-year-old Boone County female

Research demonstrates that hunger, health and well-being are deeply connected. People who are food insecure are more affected than others by diet-sensitive chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Reliable access to nutritious food is an essential part of maintaining a healthy, active, and independent lifestyle. Older Hoosiers continue to struggle with healthy eating habits – which could be due to food insecurity, lack of income, living in a food desert or lack of transportation to groceries and markets.

Through the Produce for Better Health program, we are committed to improving clinical outcomes for food insecure individuals with chronic conditions and creating more access to nutritious food by increasing affordable, healthy food options for food-insecure populations. If you are interested in participating in the program or learning more, please connect with your local Area Agencies on Aging.

Kristen LaEace is Indiana Association of Area Agencies on Aging’s CEO and Neil Steffens is Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s East Region Medicare president, which includes Indiana.

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