Christina Nadolne, manager of the Fruit & Veggie Prescription program, explains how...

Christina Nadolne, manager of the Fruit & Veggie Prescription program, explains how low-income diabetics in Suffolk County can gain free access to fresh produce. Credit: Morgan Campbell

While perusing aisle upon aisle of processed food at grocery stores, Sari Berger often feels the odds are stacked against her finding healthy and inexpensive food.

The stores may have a robust fruit and vegetable section, but Berger, who has diabetes, finds herself pushed toward less nutritious and highly caloric items to maintain a tight monthly budget.

"When you walk into the grocery store, you are definitely faced with hard choices to make, to be able to feed yourself, that you're going to take a less nutritious option so you can feed yourself and be able to eat," said Berger, who lives in Melville.

But now, Berger, 57, will be part of the new Fruit & Veggie Prescription program, which will give participants in the Sun River Health Center in Brentwood's nutritional classes $20 vouchers to purchase locally grown produce. She found out about the classes through the health center.

Launched Friday, the three-month program joins the health center with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, a small family-owned grocery store and others to give out more than $100,000 in vouchers to about 600 people.

“We tell people this is what you should eat, but then we don’t give people the resources to be able to have access to the food that they need in order to help sustain themselves,” said Deputy Suffolk County Executive Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a supporter of the program.

This program is helping fulfill the mission of not only telling people there is a problem but also connecting them to resources, she said.

The funds come as part of the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant program that serves people with lower incomes who also have some type of dietary-related illness.

Across the country, more than 37 million people have diabetes, a chronic health condition that “affects how your body turns food into energy,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in five people isn’t aware that they have the condition, the CDC says. And in the United States, it is the seventh-leading cause of death.

In New York, an estimated 9.5%, or about 116,000, of Suffolk County adults have been diagnosed with diabetes, according to the New York State Department of Health’s latest Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Comparatively, the estimated prevalence of diagnosed diabetes is 11.4% statewide and 10.5% for Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Suffolk community health experts hope that their Fruit & Veggie Prescription program will help buck the trend. Experts say a healthy lifestyle is part of treating diabetes and has a role in reversing prediabetes, where a person’s blood sugar is elevated but not high enough to be diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.

“Our goal is to try to make ... it so that you don't have as much health care cost and healthier choices so that you actually have a better quality of life,” said Christina Nadolne, grant writer and program manager at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County

Participants will have their blood sugar tested when they start and finish the program. After finishing each class, participants can take their $20 voucher to the Gala Foods supermarket near the Brentwood health center. Thera Farms in Brentwood also will provide fresh produce.

The food items can be canned, fresh or frozen.

The classes will involve teaching how to buy healthier food and navigating real-world situations, such as when a student may have to go to a fast-food stop to get food.

Teachers also will tell participants that they can also get more nutritional food after the classes end with Double Up Food Bucks, a program offered by the nonprofit Fair Food Program that matches benefits provided by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Berger plans to be in the class on Tuesday and hopes that this will be the beginning of a healthier pathway.

“What I hope to get from the program is just a more balanced lifestyle,” she said.

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