By Bruce Amaro
---- — HAVERHILL — What better place to sell healthy food than at the door of a hospital?
And what better customer base for a farmers market than hospital patients, whose doctors want them to improve their diets by eating fresh, non-processed food?
That is just what’s happening at Merrimack Valley Hospital. There, local farmers Chris and Marlene Stasinos have been allowed to set up a farm stand to sell their products, especially to patients who receive vouchers from doctors so they can get deals on the produce when they are released from the hospital.
The project emerged from an idea shared by the hospital and Jeff Grassie, farmers market coordinator for the Team Haverhill volunteer civic organization. Team Haverhill runs a larger farmers market on Saturdays next to the police station, a block north of downtown.
The hospital enrolled 50 patients and their families in the farmers market program once the patients’ primary care doctors gave them a prescription for a diet that emphasizes fresh fruit and vegetables, said Kathryn Bailey of Steward Healthcare System, which owns the hospital.
The patients receive vouchers to buy products from the farmers market. The market then sends the vouchers to the state, which reimburses the farmer for the goods sold. The program operates across the state.
“By increasing access to and visibility of healthy foods, we hope to encourage healthy behaviors in our hospital and in the community,” Bailey said in a prepared statement.
“Through our partnership with Mass. farmers markets, qualified patients and their families will receive vouchers from their primary care physicians with the ultimate aim of increasing the amount of nutritious fruits and vegetables in their diets,” Bailey said.
Although the hospital’s farmers market is open to the public, its focus is on patients.
Stasinos said the program is successful because people not only buy her goods, but talk to her about the products and their nutritional value.
“They don’t just ask for the vegetable, but want to know something about it,” she said.
She sells purple-skinned peppers, which draw a lot of attention.
“But people ask me what good will it do them,” Stasinos said. “The purple peppers and any colored pepper is high in anti-oxidants.’’
The market sells out of corn every week. Asked about the low nutritional value of corn and high sugar content, Stasinos said it comes as a recommended vegetable because of its starches, but is not good for diabetics. She recommends green beans high in vitamins A and C and certain acids, which are good for pregnant women.
Although the growing season for tomatoes started off with a wet, harsh year, recently tomatoes have come in well and are large and healthy.
“They sat there for weeks, but now with the sun are doing well,” Stasinos said. She said they were made part of the voucher system because tomatoes contain elements that fight cancer.
Farming for the past 25 years, Stasinos easily connected with Bailey’s idea to use local farm produce to encourage healthier living.
“The fresh food brought to market near home has the most nutritional value and tastes better,’’ she said. “You can taste the difference and what they’re tasting is better health.’’
The stand operates at the hospital every Tuesday from 2 to 6 p.m. The program began in July will end on the last Tuesday in October.
The stand is at the entrance between the emergency room and the main hospital at 140 Lincoln Ave.