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Community Garden Provides Free, Healthy Food Choices for People With HIV/AIDS

On an overcast Wednesday in May, a handful of health care colleagues are digging in a 20-foot-by-40-foot patch of dirt. Some are preparing beds. Others are digging holes for peppers, tomatoes and eggplants. Still more are doing chores, such as building and painting a garden table to be used for packing up the vegetable harvest before it’s offered for free to local people living with HIV/ AIDS through an Allentown food pantry.

For the past three summers, colleagues at the AIDS Activities Office (AAO) at Lehigh Valley Hospital–17th Street have been working side-by-side in a community garden project aimed at keeping their patients healthy and well. The colleagues already provide medical, psychological and social support for people with HIV/AIDS. Now their patients can also count on them for fresh, nutritious food.

“HIV medicines can cause gastrointestinal side effects,” AAO case manager Juan Collazo says. “When patients choose fresh vegetables over foods high in carbs and sodium, it gives them a nutritional boost and helps them feel better.”

Help beyond medicine

About 900 people receive care from the AAO, the largest comprehensive provider of HIV/AIDS services in the region. By providing access to healthy food choices, the AAO is able to help people with HIV/AIDS nutritionally, physically, emotionally and financially.

“HIV is a chronic condition that needs to be continuously managed,” Collazo says. “It’s important for patients to eat right and exercise, take their medications, keep their medical appointments and get their labs done.” People receiving active medical care from the AAO are eligible for free food from the food bank and community garden based on need.

Keeping things fresh

At the community garden in Whitehall, onions and leaks will mature during the spring, and broccoli, lettuce, beans and summer squash will be planted. Throughout the summer, the seeds will grow into a colorful harvest that will provide a nutritional boost to AAO patients who need to keep their immune systems strong. A small cutting garden planted with dahlias, coneflowers and daisies will provide an emotional lift.

AAO colleagues have help from a master gardener who volunteers her time to mentor the mostly novice gardeners. Her help, along with succession planting and luck, ensures an adequate harvest throughout the season.

“We serve about 60 families a month,” Collazo says. “The garden gives our patients an incentive to keep up with their medical care. It’s also a very rewarding and tangible way for AAO colleagues to help patients in need.”