Implementing Produce Rx Programs in WNC: A Conversation With Jessica Mrugala

— Written By Emma Jablonski and last updated by
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Jessica Mrugala is the Local Food Systems Regional Area Specialized Agent for the EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems (EMFS) program in southwestern North Carolina. Her service areas include Haywood, Jackson, Swain, Macon, Cherokee, Clay, Graham counties, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on their Qualla Boundary. EMFS is a grant-funded four-year project aimed to build capacity and opportunities for local food in southwestern North Carolina. Or in Jessica’s words, to keep farmers farming and local food businesses thriving! Her role ranges from supporting farmers’ markets, working with college students, designing and implementing community-based programming, and scheduling trainings for agents, business owners, and curious community members.

When asked about her favorite part of her position, Jessica shared, “I love being encouraged to hold community listening meetings and build programming and sustainable projects based on what the people want around the local food scene in their home places. I can not believe I get to work with creative entrepreneurs, rally behind their dreams and share that momentum with those around us.”

Jessica’s Local Foods Landscape
The EmPOWERing Mountain Food Systems program expands across the beautiful southwestern region of North Carolina. Jessica works with many communities in rural, mountainous areas. She shared that the advantages to the landscape, besides the obvious beauty, are how people from the region come together in the face of hardship. “We embrace […] challenges and connect with each other in times of adversity. It is my responsibility to learn from the locals and people who were born and raised here about their way of life and values.”

Seven-County Project Region: Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Clay, Cherokee, Graham and Swain.

Despite the breathtaking views, the mountainous region comes with a special set of challenges. Transportation takes longer due to the terrain and winding roads and communities are spaced far apart. Jessica added, “We don’t have much land to farm and flat land is in flood zones [but] mountain folks are strong and independent! So much of local food is people doing it themselves. This makes for a tricky balance between encouraging some home growers to take their business to the next level or respectfully acknowledging that they are independent and happy at the pace they are growing.”

Jessica’s Primary Projects & Programs
Jessica’s main project is Harvest Health, a Produce Prescription (Rx) Program designed to educate consumers about healthy, seasonal eating and engage regional farmers. Produce Rx Programs connect physicians and dieticians to people with diet-related health risks or conditions, or food access challenges. They are prescribed little to no cost nutrient-packed foods that are intended to ultimately improve healthcare outcomes, reform medical spending, and enhance patient engagement and satisfaction.

In late 2020, Dr. Patrick Baron from the Western Carolina University (WCU) Integrated Health Sciences Program, WCU students, and Jessica partnered to develop a Produce Rx Program that serves the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Jessica collaborated with a group of senior students to research national models of Produce Rx Programs and interview local farmers, community health workers, local dietitians, and community leaders to determine a potential model for the Cherokee. The students presented their findings and made recommendations on how to implement the program at a community meeting. 

Their proposed program followed the CSA model, involving a weekly box of local, in-season foods delivered to a central location for client pick-up. The boxes are accompanied by weekly cooking and nutrition education classes that utilize the ingredients found in the box. Harvest Health officially launched in January 2022 once regional organizations Mountainwise, Vecinos, Cherokee Tribal Food Distribution, and Cherokee Indian Hospital decided to partner with Jessica and WCU to pilot the program. Two models of the program were established to best address the needs of each group. Find out more about these organizations and their pilot models here.

Jessica dreams to see this program replicated in every Extension office in the state. “We are seeing success and behavioral changes, meaning an increased demand in seasonal food purchased by our local farmers,” she said.

Jessica’s Final Thoughts
Jessica’s greatest advice to Extension Agents is to continually ask community members what they want, need, and are passionate about and think systematically and sustainably. When asked about the future of local food in North Carolina, Jessica shared her hopes and fears. She said, “When I am optimistic, I believe the future of foods in NC looks like seasonal produce and products in every institution, grocery store, and belly. I see a thriving system of producers and consumers working together to make healthy communities and economies that are committed to doing what is best for the planet, land, and water.” She continued, “When I am pessimistic, I see small farms and unique specialty crops vanishing and cookie cuter mansions taking over the rolling hills of our mountains, valleys, and shores. I worry that if we do not do everything we can to make local food permanent and a priority – we will lose so much of what we love about our state and food traditions to pollution, land loss, and boring, conventional dishes.”

Jessica’s favorite local food item is from EBCI Tribal Canner, Christine Kanott, who makes a delicious strawberry rhubarb pie filling using homegrown berries and rhubarb. It is concocted at the local tribal cannery.