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Program brings fresh produce to seniors

Produce for the senior fruit and vegetable program is bagged at BN Park in Verndale, before getting distributed through Humphrey Manor and the Eagle Bend Senior Center.

Nothing tastes better than fresh food from the garden.

Just ask Humphrey Manor resident Bernice Geiser, one of 76 area seniors who received a five-pound bag of fruits and vegetables every two weeks last summer through an innovative Todd and Wadena Public Health nutrition program.

"It was always nice produce," Geiser said. "It was such a good variety."

With money from the State Health Improvement Program (SHIP) grant, the counties teamed up in 2012 to launch the senior fruit and vegetable pilot program - the only one of its kind in Minnesota.

Originally limited to Meals on Wheels clients, the program served 43 seniors in its first year. Last year, it was offered to all Humphrey Manor residents, including Geiser and her friend Martha Hughes.

"Everyone looked forward to it," Hughes said. "It's so nice to have fresh stuff."

She said she's eager for this year's first delivery. It should come by the end of the month, said Erica Keppers, Wadena County SHIP grant coordinator.

"We're just waiting for the produce to be ready," she said.

Over the past two years, the program has provided seniors more than 4,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, which come from Staples Area Growers Association members. The bags are filled in Verndale, then are distributed through Humphrey Manor and the Eagle Bend Senior Center.

"The seniors enjoy getting their meals and they are also eating more fruits and vegetables, which of course positively affects their health," Keppers said.

By providing a consistent market for their goods, she said, the program is also good for local growers.

"Launched in 2008 as a part of Minnesota's bipartisan health reform effort, SHIP works to help Minnesotans live longer, healthier lives by decreasing obesity and tobacco use and exposure, the leading causes of chronic disease, disability and death," according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

But the state commitment is for a limited time frame. SHIP funding for the senior fruit and vegetable program will dry up in 2015.

"At that point, we are hoping it will be sustainable," Keppers said.

That means finding other sources of money.

This year, public health secured a grant from Todd-Wadena Electric Cooperative. A May fundraiser at Harvest Thyme Bistro yielded nearly $1,000. It was organized by Del Moen and David Evert of STimulating Economic Progress (STEP), a Wadena non-profit.

"They took it upon themselves to do it," Keppers said. "The community cares."