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May 5, 2017

How 3 hospital systems are combating food insecurity, from casinos to onsite gardens

Daily Briefing

Recognizing the link between food insecurity, chronic illness, and poverty, several hospitals are launching innovative programs designed to facilitate patients' access to healthy, affordable food,

Syeda Aisha, a program specialist with the Health Research & Educational Trust, writes for Hospitals & Health Networks.

Three steps to prioritize population health interventions

Hospitals' role

According to Aisha, nearly 16 million Americans—or about 12.7 percent of the U.S. population—in 2015 experienced limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Food insecurity can stem from a limited food supply, a lack of access to nutritious food, an inability to afford food, abnormal eating patterns, or the consumption of high-calorie, high-carbohydrate food, Aisha writes, and it's been linked to increased risk of chronic conditions—such as diabetes and obesity—as well as heightened stress levels and the increased risk of tobacco and alcohol use.

What health systems are doing

To combat food insecurity, several hospitals and health systems—including Arkansas Children's Hospital, Boston Medical Center, and ProMedica—are implementing upstream interventions and teaming up with local and national partners.

For instance, Arkansas Children's Hospital is addressing food insecurity through:

  • An onsite garden that in 2016 produced more than 1,790 pounds of produce—all of which was given to a local Helping Hand pantry for redistribution;
  • A partnership with Share Our Strength to offer Cooking Matters classes, in which chefs and nutritionists teach classes about cooking healthy, affordable meals;
  • A partnership with USDA, through which the hospital has distributed more than 60,000 packed lunches to children visiting the hospital since 2013; and
  • A pilot program that used a determinants-of-health screening tool to identify more than 2,000 local individuals as food in 2016. 

In Massachusetts, Boston Medical Center, has been working with Greater Boston Food Bank to operate the Preventive Food Pantry for over 15 years, delivering medically referred food-insecure individuals with enough healthy food to last three or four days. According to Aisha, the partnership provides meals for more than 7,000 patients and their families per month, and more than 15,000 pounds of food per week—totally more than 1 million pounds of food each year.

Boston Medical Center has also established an onsite Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program to encourage families to apply for benefits during their stay, Aisha repots, as well as a demonstration kitchen where patients can learn how to cook healthy meals with foods from the pantry.

Meanwhile, ProMedica, a not-for-profit health system serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, has implemented a variety of clinical and nonclinical approaches toward addressing food insecurity. For instance, the system uses a screening tool—the Children's HealthWatch Hunger Vital Sign survey—in its inpatient admission database, a process that in 2016 screened 57,224 patients for food insecurity. The system also set up two food pharmacies in Toledo, where patients can fill doctor-issued "prescriptions" for two or three days' worth of food. While at the pharmacy, patients can also undergo no-cost nutrition counseling with a registered dietitian.

Outside the clinical setting, ProMedica's national Root Cause Coalition disseminates best practices and engages communities to address hunger and other determinants of health. And in a more unusual tack, the system has teamed up with a local casino to deliver unused food from the casino's restaurant to a local food bank—a partnership that's redistributed more than 300,000 pounds of food, or roughly 275,000 meals, to the local area.

As Barbara Petee, chief advocacy and government relations officer at ProMedica, said, "ProMedica is committed to meeting our mission to improve health and well-being, and as such, we must address basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter" (Aisha, Hospitals & Health Networks, 4/27).

3 steps to prioritize population health interventions

Explore three steps you can take to establish each patient’s current and future risk level, the root causes of the patient’s health risks, and which interventions would make the biggest impact.


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