A good one can be the key to well-being; a bad one, the gateway to disease.
Dr. Terry Mason, Chief Operating Officer of the Cook County Department of Public Health, believes that most of the disease processes in this country are due to the foods we eat.
"Diabetes, strokes, cardiovascular disease. These are not different diseases — these are just different manifestations of one disease and most of that is food related," Mason said.
At the same time, he added, "I believe that food is one of the most essential components for how we're going to begin to reverse the tide of disease."
About five years ago, after studies revealed a high concentration of diabetes and hypertension in the south suburbs of Cook County, Mason proposed a simple idea: Plant a garden and give away the organic crops to the very people who come to the Oak Forest Health Center for treatment.
The south suburbs, he said, are home to some of the poorest cities in the nation. Many of their residents seek treatment through the county at the Oak Forest facility.
"Access to fresh fruits and vegetables isn't always there," Mason said. "So, we thought, what a good opportunity it would be if when people come here for medical care, we could also give them healthcare."
Each Thursday, staff volunteers harvest crops from six raised beds of turnip greens, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard. Soon, they'll have tomatoes as well. They portion the pesticide-free produce into freezer bags. Then, on Fridays, patients and their families are invited to stop in for a few bags to take home.
The gardens are the brainchild of Mason and Dr. Kenneth Campbell, systems operations analyst. They were built and are maintained by volunteer staffers — plumbers, carpenters and grounds workers who stay after work to weed, water and make sure the perimeter is secure from the local deer population.
Mason said the first year volunteers put up fencing around three concrete pads in a courtyard. Then they built the raised beds. With the help of University of Illinois extension master gardeners, who taught them how to plant, care and harvest, they have enjoyed an increasing yield each year, he said. Mason said they're on track for harvesting about 300 pounds of produce this year.
In a room on the first floor of the E building, patients lined up for the crops giveaway on a recent Friday.
While Jay Yancy waited for his mother, a resident of Harvey, to meet with her doctor, he grabbed a few bags of greens.
"I think this is great that they reach out to the community, offering healthy eating and everything," he said.
Siba Yaseen, 16, of Hickory Hills, was also at the center with her mother and other family members. "I think this is awesome because it's organic," she said.
Leonda Dillon of Chicago's South Side called the four bags she was clutching "a gift."
"It's good. I have company coming over the weekend, so it'll be for Sunday dinner," she said.
Mason, who heads up the third-largest public healthcare system in the country, said all patients, whether they're visiting their primary care doctor, a cardiologist, gynecologist or the eye clinic, are welcome to the free produce.
Mason and Campbell practice what they preach.
"I like Swiss chard sauteed with very little olive oil and some water, and lots of garlic and lots of onions," Mason said.
Campbell said he throws kale into the blender. "When I get done working out, a nice cup of kale is great," he said.
Most people don't realize there's protein in plants, Mason said, adding that many of the earth's largest mammals — elephants, rhinos, giraffes — live on plants.
Holding up a dark green stem, Mason said: "The chlorophyll that's in green leafy vegetables — the stuff that makes them green — is what's so important. What you have here is insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber is what's missing in a lot of our diet. Some people just eat the leaf, but the stem is good, too. If you think about it, everything that nourishes this leaf comes through the stem."
Mason has a vision for the expansive health center grounds which, at its height, was home to 1,200 long-term care patients. The Oak Forest facility, bordered by Cicero and Pulaski avenues, opened as a poor farm in 1854 and saw an outbreak of scurvy 20 years later due to a lack of fresh produce. After that, it became a tuberculosis sanitarium, and then a long-term residential care facility. In 2010, it closed and reopened as administrative offices. Many of the buildings remain abandoned, their interior facilities, which include chapels, kitchens and even a general store, are almost frozen in time.
"I'd like to turn this into a place where we could grow our own food, feed our own people — the people that use the service here," Mason said. "We have an amazing opportunity to leverage a county asset in a different sort of way. We're now looking to work with the (Cook County) Housing Authority, because they've indicated that a lot of the seniors who live in those facilities would love the opportunity to help with the gardening. We have lots of land. We're just trying to figure out how to get the sites cleaned up.
"Can you just imagine what it would be like if we had 10 acres of this?" he said, pointing to the 4-by-17-foot garden beds. "Can you imagine the people who could be fed?"
Encouraging people to eat fresh produce, particularly dark leafy greens, he said, is a simple public health message.
"These are simple solutions," said Mason, who was a urologist for 27 years before deciding he wanted to prevent the diseases he was treating.
Mason said he believes most people do not realize the connection between diet and health. As a medical student, he said, his four years of training included only 40 minutes on nutrition.
"People confuse prevention with early detection," he said. "We can get rid of most of the Type 2 diabetes, most of the coronary artery disease or stroke.
"We can get rid of a lot of ailments," he added, "if we could get people to eat a diet that is mostly plants and very little animal-based products."