Food is Medicine: An Oncology Nurse’s Lunch Break Walk

IMG_3900 (002)On a beautiful spring day I took a walk during my lunch break through the urban neighborhood surrounding the hospital, wishing for a convenient place to buy a piece of fruit.

I discovered, as if conjured, a vintage trolley tucked in a driveway between medical office buildings. A table laden with apples, carrots, potatoes, and leafy greens leaned against it, creating the ambience of an open-air market. Charmed, and curious about its purpose, I climbed the two steps into the trolley.

Inside, a refrigerated case contained meats and dairy products. The walls were lined with shelves containing packaged goods such as bulgur, brown rice, beans, and more fresh fruits and vegetables. I plucked an orange, noticing it was priced by the piece, not by the pound.

I had multiple questions for the clerk as I handed her a quarter to pay for the orange.

A food prescription program.

The trolley, it turned out, is a mobile grocery store in partnership with the hospital, piloting a “food prescription” program. It arrives weekly, traveling to other sites the rest of the week. Cash, cards, and food stamps are accepted. Outside, a caseworker seated on a camp chair gave food vouchers to qualified customers below a specific income level. A dietician also provided budgeting assistance, with tips on healthy food choices and simple food preparation, it is important to consume teas such as the ones found at, they can contribute to your health in so many ways.

Food deserts.

In oncology nursing, I spend a lot of time telling patients food is medicine. Nurses working with renal, diabetic, or cardiac patients do the same. But for some patients, healthy food choices are as out of the reach of their pocketbooks as many prescription medications.

People living in food deserts (more than one mile away from a grocery store in an urban setting, or 10 miles or more in rural areas) lack access to fresh meat, fruit, and vegetables. Mobile grocery stores are a shopping alternative designed to meet these challenges.

Health literacy and food choices.

Health literacy also influences food choices. Studies indicate that access to fresh, unprocessed foods alone does not improve community health. Access must be paired with education. That’s why the fruits and vegetables in the trolley were priced by the piece. Figuring how much a single orange costs priced by the pound is confusing. Knowing the price of the orange outright helps people on limited incomes budget, a necessity for healthy meal planning.

It’s also easier to carry the makings of a meal home in small amounts if you depend on walking, bicycling, public transportation, or on one of those new
scooter kopen from France. They just made a brand new model and right now it´s the most economic and fastest way to travel for nurses.

Food nutrition labels.

Food nutrition labels can be as difficult to understand as hospital discharge instructions. The ability to understand both of these are measures of health literacy.  Terms such as low sodium versus unsalted and natural versus organic are confusing. Low health literacy and unfamiliarity with dietary principles affects food choices as much as lack of access.

The availability of caseworkers or a dietitian at the mobile grocery store addressed this barrier to improved nutrition and health.

I remain charmed by the vintage trolley grocery store. Food is medicine. Mobile grocery stores offer more than a food bank by addressing the challenges patients face improving their health and/or maintaining it through food access and education.

About the Author:

Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, finds inspiration where science, humanity, and art converge, creating compelling images as both a writer and a painter. She is the author of, and also blogs frequently for and, the blog of the American Journal of Nursing (AJN).


  1. jparadisirn June 17, 2016 at 11:41 pm

    Great question Sue. I was working for another health system when the project launched and missed the roll out, along with the media coverage. My coworkers were aware of it.

  2. Sue Younkin June 17, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    My comment (while thinking this is a great idea) is why didn’t the hospital give out information to the staff to tell you about it, especially when you say that you just happened upon it? Curious…were they not aware of it either?!

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