The Wellness Institute at Whittier Street Health Center

  • February 8, 2017

Roxbury is a diverse neighborhood located in Boston that historically has had leading rates of crime and unemployment, and its residents have only a life expectancy of 59 years- well below the national average of 78.8 years. However, the town’s notoriety is giving way to revitalization in many ways, including how health services are being provided. The Whittier Street Health Center is a national model for Patient Centered Medical Homes, including the implementation of innovative healthy eating and active living strategies.

Rachel Dziedzic, registered dietician and health coach, works with the health center’s patients, who often have high rates of obesity related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. “So, pretty much every patient has one of those [conditions], unfortunately,” said Dziedzic. To address these risk factors, the health clinic uses a prescription program, but rather than just focusing on prescription medication, there is a focus on physical activity and nutrition, as well.  Dziedzic explains that often one of the doctors in the clinic will give the patient “a prescription for exercise if they feel that it’s necessary.” The prescription includes information about their blood pressure and weight, as well as the recommendation and frequency of exercise. Then Dziedzic works with the patients, individually and in groups, to set goals and provide education on topics, such as nutrition and diabetes.

Sometimes residents of Roxbury do not feel safe exercising in their neighborhood, so the health clinic conveniently offers a gym membership on site for patients and staff for only $10 a month. The gym offers group exercise classes, including yoga and Zumba, which Dziedzic notes is “really good for motivation.” She adds, “a lot of people have never even exercised before, and they might be in their 50s or 60s, and have never been on a treadmill or never had any form of fitness really besides walking or maybe playing sports as a child.” To help patients feel more comfortable with exercising in a gym, they also provide a personal trainer. “We have a trainer here who can give exercise instruction for our patients because that was a major barrier [to] people joining the gym. It was very intimidating because [some of the patients have] never set foot in a gym before, not knowing where to begin, and how to do that safely,” said Dziedzic. She has also observed that those that come to the gym regularly see improvements, including lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and better weight management, “and that really hits home with a lot of people.”

In addition to Dziedzic helping patients set nutrition goals, she explains the importance of having a community garden on the site of the health clinic: “There’s not a lot of places in the city that there are gardens. Many people are not very well connected with where their food comes from.  There are so many corner stores with just processed foods.   A lot of kids may never have even see fruits or vegetables growing, or even tasted a lot of different types of fruits and vegetables.” In response to this need, the health clinic offers opportunities to join a weekly garden club. During the garden club, patients “participate in weeding and maintenance of the garden, and then actually get to take stuff from harvest to the home,” Dziedzic explains.  Further, the garden is directly connected to the nutrition classes Dziedzic teaches. “I will talk about the vegetables, and we’ll do cooking demonstrations with some of the produce from the garden so that people can learn what to do with the produce that they’re taking home. We may have an education session on high blood pressure and sodium reduction and then tie in how using herbs can be a good way to flavor your food without using salt.” To promote the garden club, produce is also made available in the health clinic’s gym.

For the kids, the health clinic offers a camp in the summer where they garden and learn about fruits and vegetables and the growing process, and then use produce from the garden in recipes for the kids to try. Dziedzic explains the health clinics’ value on overall wellness: “Whether it be kids or adults….We have an extremely high depression rate here, and exercise and gardening can be good strategies for stress management.”

In addition to the garden, the health clinic partners with Fair Food, which is a non-profit food rescue organization that provides surplus goods at low or no cost to those in need. The health clinic is a site that sells the produce every other week to both patients and staff. Although the produce may have imperfections, it is perfectly suitable to eat, and patients can buy a 16 oz. bag full of produce for only $2. Dziedzic says this partnership provides “more access to healthy foods at a lower cost.”

With these healthy eating and active living strategies the Whittier Health Clinic continues to show their commitment to addressing barriers to forming or maintaining healthy habits and increasing the life expectancy of Roxbury residents.

Whittier Street Health Center’s Active Living Strategies

  • Providing access to a gym on site at a low cost– The health clinic has a gym with fitness equipment and a personal trainer to address barriers to physical activity, including a safe and welcoming environment with supportive professionals and offering membership that is affordable for most.


  • Media to promote access and appeal for physical activity- The health clinic uses social media (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube), as well as the local news outlets to promote the health clinic services, including their gym membership.


  • Promotional posters and flyers- The health clinic staff regularly distribute and post promotional posters and flyers of fitness events and gym membership offers.


Whittier Street Health Center’s Healthy Eating Strategies

  • Community garden- Each patient has an opportunity to participate in the weekly garden club that focuses on maintenance of the garden, as well as harvesting produce from the garden that patients can take home. There is also an opportunity for kids to participate in a summer camp, where they have an opportunity to learn about gardening; work in the garden; and try some foods from the garden.


  • Community partnerships- The health clinic partners with Fair Food, which is a local non-profit organization that provides surplus foods at a low cost. The health clinic is a site that sells the produce every other week, where patients can buy a 16 oz. bag full of produce for only $2.


  • Using social media to promote access and appeal for healthy eating- The health clinic uses social media (i.e., Facebook and Twitter) to promote healthy eating tips, including eating on a budget.


Please visit our website ( and our Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube pages for more information regarding our impact in the community and upcoming events.


A note about Whittier and COVID-19

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak in our area, we ask all clients and patients to call ahead before coming to any of our sites. We are working to take care of most clients/patients via phone/video encounter so we can meet your ongoing healthcare needs. This is for your safety and so we can provide the highest quality of care to you while following CDC guidance for COVID-19. Please call 617-427-1000 for any questions or concerns.

Whittier will provide COVID-19 testing from 10 am to 4 pm on Monday to Friday. Following CDC guidance, we recommend testing if you have a fever AND one of the following three symptoms: cough OR shortness of breath OR sore throat. Please bring your picture identification and your insurance card (if you have insurance).