BY JONAH LOSSIAH
A feather stick
Jessica Mrugala has focused on a healthier Cherokee for years.
She began working at Cherokee Central Schools in 2017 and has been a service member at the Qualla Frontier ever since. Mrugala currently works as a Local Food Extension Agent for NC Cooperative Extension in Cherokee. She has also worked with EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems to support local farmers and connect them to the community.
Part of Mrugala’s responsibilities in 2022 was overseeing Harvest Health, a product prescription program run by her office to promote healthy eating and cooking habits. The effort had two locations, each with 30 participants. The Cherokee operation was conducted from the Cooperative Extension office on the border. The other has partnered with Vecinos, “a nonprofit organization and free community health clinic based at Western Carolina University that serves the Latino and farmworker community of western North Carolina.”
These programs started in January 2022 and ran for 12 weeks. It has partnered with Darnell Farms to source the freshest vegetables, greens, meat and dairy possible. If possible, source locally. The program also provided cooking kits to assist in the kitchen, which included quality chef’s knives, hand blenders and other tools.
Mrugala said there were some priorities in developing this program. They wanted to remove barriers to entry, connect fully, and work to create positive habits. She credits the program’s success to her team’s detailed approach.
“I think we took our time. I mean we’ve been working on this program for a year and what it would look like. Because we did that and took the time to talk to Cherokee people about what they wanted to see, I think it was so successful. We took the time to listen and ask questions. Since people said that the transport will be a problem. How do you make sure people can come and get to those boxes? That’s why we were able to add fuel cards to the budget. We learned that the internet would be a problem. Not everyone would be able to access these videos. So we could pan and stream them during pickup from the extended classroom,” Mrugala said
She said the program started building legs last year at Western Carolina University (WCU). Mrugala was administered by Dr. Patrick Baron, assistant professor at WCU and director of the integrated health sciences program. He asked Mrugala if she had a project for his senior year HSCC 475 in his class. She presented a version of this program for food prescriptions and they soon got to work.
“Sometimes during the semester I met with these students twice a week and worked with them on a huge feasibility study. I led the students in researching various prescription programs for products around the world. From that, they picked threads that might work here based on those other programs.”
This collaboration has continued after the results have arrived at the two pilot sites. In Cherokee, the 30 participants are split equally between Cherokee Food Distribution employees and Cherokee Indian Hospital nutritionists.
One of these participants was Jeanne Crowe. She said the program has helped her and her family in many ways.
“I enjoy the variety of vegetables. I’ve seen them in stores but have never tried to cook or eat them. Because I didn’t know what they were until this program. They explain things to you. i am diabetic Since the program started, my A1C has come down quite a bit,” Crowe said.
She said the whole program had a sense of community. She said she could call or write to any of the instructors if they had any concerns or questions. Crowe also found the cooking guide to be tremendously helpful in understanding what to do with the fresh food they were given. The program worked with Mark Greenfield, a chef in France and brother-in-law of Cherokee hospital manager Nilofer Couture. They have also streamed videos with Uncomplicated Kitchens and created content from Rose James of Tribal Food Distribution and Ulela Harris of Cherokee Indian Hospital.
“The videos with Chef Mark and Uncomplicated Kitchens. These videos helped me a lot. Regarding the recipes they shared with us. We take photos of the dishes we prepare from these recipes and share them with the program and other people. It was an inspiration, I can tell you that.”
Crowe said she hasn’t even missed the unhealthier options her family used to consistently eat. She said it was all about learning how to cook the right ingredients the right way.
“If there are things in it that my family likes and we eat it up real quick, I’ll go to the store and buy the same product again. Or I’ll go to Darnell’s because Darnell’s is closer to me than the grocery store. We use more vegetables and fruits,” she said. “Even my little granddaughter really enjoyed it. I’ll explain. As she gets in the car, she says, “Nanna, did you bring me some healthy snacks?” So yes. It even leaked to her. It was good.”
Crowe said she will be speaking to tribal leaders to make sure they know how beneficial the program has been.
“I hate to see it end here because I’ve been for every one of the classes. Everyone totally enjoyed it.”
Mrugala said she is confident Harvest Health has a future. The studies and results will be presented in late April, and she said she is currently working to secure funding from multiple sources.
“There are so many grants out there … but we’re keeping those dollars isolated. The beauty of this program is that EmPowering Mountain Food Systems had the capacity – and I was – to be that liaison and logistics coordinator. We were able to integrate a really intensive program. But it was worth it because we are seeing behavior changes. Our mid-term evaluation showed that 75% of our participants felt better within six weeks,” said Mrugala.
She said this model is something she can see across the region. However, she said the coordinator’s position is essential to getting the aisles up and running.
“That’s the big point. This program can be replicated by so many different people in Cherokee. But also, I am firmly convinced, nationwide. This is a really good model. I think as long as you have someone connecting the pawn and the classes.”
Depending on the funding options and how they want to move forward, Mrugala already knows the features and costs of running this operation. She said she doesn’t want to skimp on the details in order to have the greatest impact, especially for the pilot.
“I probably spent $150,000 for three months on the two sides. 30 families in each location, so that’s 60 boxes of food per week. These boxes of groceries were valued at about $75 each. Because we wanted people to experience local meats and cheeses. Mills River local cream. Everyone got those essential cooking supplies, there were plenty of hand blenders. So it’s an expensive program. Absolutely. But for a lasting impact that ultimately supports our local farmers and puts money back into the economy and taking care of the land, it’s worth it.”
Mrugala mentioned that when they are able to run Harvest Health in Cherokee again, they hope to implement more personal features like they did with their Vecinos operation. She said they would like to work with the community clubs to increase convenience and have more kitchen options.
She said she hopes programs like this could foster a healthier community across Cherokee.
“Nutrition and wellness are so closely linked. It’s intersectional with things like low living wages, stress and trauma, and what’s accessible. I mean we have a grocery store. And if you’re exhausted from raising a bunch of kids and working and maybe not able to make ends meet, yes, go to McDonalds. It’s just that intersection of stress, and I really don’t think we can get into nutrition and wellness until we get into the deeper causes of stress and trauma here. That’s why I’m really passionate about creating programs that try to break down as many barriers as possible. Because when there are barriers, it’s even more stressful.”
The next step to putting the research together and fighting for funding. Mrugala said she will do everything possible to try to establish this as a consistent program in Cherokee. The hope is that the remaining money and timing issues will be resolved over the next few months.