The inviting smells of freshly cooked food and the sound of string music filled the air at the corner of 15th and Jacob streets in East Wheeling Wednesday afternoon. Amidst shoppers picking up groceries at the Grow Ohio Valley (Grow OV) farm stand, curious neighbors joined the crowd to enjoy the tastes and tunes along the sidewalk.

The event — formally termed, “Hooray for Health! A Community Celebration” — centered around the presentation of a $50,000 grant from Sun Life Financial to Grow OV to support and expand their Sprout and FARMacy programs.

“Having the community here and having this open to the community was very important when we were deciding how to celebrate,” said Samantha Amberg, director of operations for Grow OV. “And I said, let’s just have it at our farm stand, because that’s our big community day, and we can turn it into a little celebration.”

Each year, five nonprofits are awarded grants by Sun Life as part of their Team Up Against Diabetes program. Grow OV was one of the five chosen from over 180 applicants for the award.

“It’s unbelievably competitive,” said Mark Vergilii, a Sun Life representative presenting the grant. “Some of the criteria are sustainability, the amount of people it impacts, consistency and the positive impact it has on the community, both financially and healthwise. Grow Ohio Valley really stood out.”

The event featured music from Annick Odom and food samples from local chef Sarah Lydick. Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliot joined Grow OV’s Sarah Amberg and Danny Swan, as well as Sun Life’s Mark Vergilii, Jon Russ and Ryan Blasz for the presentation of the grant.

Musician Annick Odom plays a selection from her project “West Virginia, My Home.”

“Anything that gets more healthy foods into more people’s mouths is something we have to look forward to promote,” said Elliot. “Grow Ohio Valley has been a great partner to us here in the community.”

During the ceremony, Mark Vergilii made special mention that Grow OV is the second West Virginia nonprofit to receive the grant in as many years.

“There’s only five [grantees] in the country. We did this last year as well, and one of the other recipients for 2017 was another West Virginia organization called Healthsmart,” Vergilii said. “To have two grant winners from West Virginia in a national competition is pretty impressive, so it’s awesome to be here.”

The two Grow Ohio Valley programs the grant will help fund and expand, FARMacy and Sprout, tackle diabetes prevention and treatment through healthy eating for adults and children respectively.

The FARMacy initiative is the result of a partnership between Grow Ohio Valley and the Wheeling Health Right Clinic, specifically for Wheeling residents living with diet-related health issues such as diabetes or high cholesterol. Participants in the program are written prescriptions for produce from their health care provider, which they turn in for free produce at the Grow Ohio Valley mobile market on 29th Street in South Wheeling. In addition to fresh and healthy food, participants also receive nutrition advice and cooking tips for each week’s selection.

“We do basic recipes for whatever the feature produce is,” said Amanda Cummins of FARMacy. “This program started because we were doing a group appointment, and many of our patients told us they have a low familiarity and just didn’t know how to cook.”

Grow Ohio Valley plans to use part of the Sun Life grant to expand the FARMacy program from 50 to 100 participants. The program — now in its third year — has seen empirically-based success in treating diet-related diseases through healthy eating.

Onlookers and shoppers mix along the sidewalk of Jacob Street. The event coincided with Grow OV’s weekly farm stand in East Wheeling.

“We do surveys at the beginning and end of the program as well as lab value data,” Cummins said. “Last year’s data showed we lowered a blood marker called Hemoglobin A1c, a marker for diabetes control and prevention, by about 0.4. That may sound insignificant, but most diabetics are on three or four medicines, each only brings the blood glucose down about one half of a point. So just by giving them $20 worth of produce a week for 20 weeks, we effectively lowered their A1c by almost half a point, which is equal to drug data.”

While FARMacy successfully provides treatment to adults, Grow OV’s Sprout program focuses on prevention for youth through healthy eating. Sprout includes all of Grow OV’s children’s programs ranging from $2 of free produce for any children who visit their farm stand to sending their mobile market to area schools.

“In the fall, we have Sprout to School visits, where the mobile market and our education team visit the elementary schools and do a day of programming,” Amberg said. “We visit every elementary school in Ohio County.”

Through part of the grant from Sun Life, Grow OV hopes to expand the program to middle schools, hosting field trips to their farms so students can see exactly where the food comes from.

“Hopefully this year we’ll be getting the sixth-graders to come out to one of our farms,” Amberg said. “They got to see the truck in elementary school; now it’s time to see how the vegetables get on the truck and what happens there.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Sun Life representatives posed for pictures with staff from Grow Ohio Valley and Mayor Elliott with the oversized check. A photographer called out for the group to say cheese. A voice from the crowd responded: “No, say veggies!”

Nick Musgrave is a self-described history geek living in Wheeling, W.Va. He is a graduate of Hastings College in Hastings, Neb., where he earned his bachelor’s degrees in history and political science. When not writing for Weelunk or uncovering cool stories about the past, he can often be found reading in his hammock or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee. 

The “Hooray for Health!” celebration featured healthy snacks that Wheeling chef Sarah Lydick made from Grow OV produce.

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