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This week, we are celebrating Community Health Improvement Week and also recognizing our COVID-19 heroes working in rural communities.

The Northeastern Rural Health Network is the Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas (HPHC) coalition in Marlboro County, working to address the root causes of chronic health issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

While nutrition has always been at the heart of HPHC’s mission, it became a critical concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the coalition focused its work and energy on food access.

“The coalition had many conversations on ways to continue to meet the primary goals of HPHC, and find a way to still support local communities during the pandemic which resulted in the coalition selecting to pilot the Healthy Produce Bag Initiative in Marlboro County,” said Patrick Bines, Director of the Northeastern Rural Health Network and HPHC Coordinator.

The coalition partnered with the PDTRA MARTi transit system and MrArthur Farms to place healthy produce bags on the local city buses in Marlboro County once a week. These bags are available to any bus rider who may have a need for food.

“Not only are we providing these residents with a fresh bag of produce, we are introducing some and teaching many of them to practice healthy eating,” Bines said. “Many of the residents in Marlboro County live with chronic disease, particularly heart disease and hypertension. Being able to provide a healthy produce bag to those riders certainly creates an opportunity to improve their health.”

After four weeks, a total of 320 produce bags have been distributed via the city transit. Those using the service have been asked to complete a short survey so that the program organizers can evaluate the effectiveness of the initiative. But Bines said they’re already getting positive feedback.

“We’ve heard from the bus drivers of MARTi how appreciative the residents are of having such an opportunity, and how many have found the program to be a blessing,” Bines said.

Healthy People, Healthy Carolinas is a program funded by The Duke Endowment. The SC Office of Rural Health and the SC Hospital Association partner with coalitions across the state to address the root causes of poor health. Learn more here.

Those interested in supporting or becoming involved with the Northeast Rural Health Network can email [email protected] or call 843-535-0525.