One in six households experience food insecurity: limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. Individuals who are food insecure are two times as likely to suffer from diabetes and are three times as likely to have poor overall health status.
When you consider these realities and the fact that many non-profit hospitals serve food deserts—areas devoid of healthy or nutritious food options—there is a largely untapped opportunity to better serve the community while achieving population health objectives.
Our recent research on best practice models for addressing food insecurity indicates that there are three major ways health care provider organizations can step in to provide additional support:
1. Connect patients to federal and state benefits
As a first line of defense, many hospitals start by empowering and supporting patients in accessing benefits they are already entitled to, such as SNAP and WIC. This can take the form of social workers or lawyers from medical-legal partnerships aiding patients in finding the right forms and completing applications, or connecting patients to an on-campus enrollment office.
At St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, for example, the Pennsylvania WIC agency staffs a dietitian and office coordinator to enroll patients in WIC while they're already onsite for clinical services. The office currently serves approximately 500 patients per month.
2. Increase access to healthy foods
The biggest role that health care providers can play is in providing supplemental food assistance, particularly to those living in food deserts who may rely on convenience stores. These programs take a variety of forms, including emergency food assistance, on-site food pantries and "food Rx" programs, discounted produce partnerships, free meal programs, and sometimes even hospital-owned grocery stores. In many cases, individuals can use SNAP benefits to make their money to go further, purchasing produce and other healthy items at a discount.
3. Sponsor nutrition education
To more directly connect food-related assistance to clinical education, many hospitals and health systems now offer wrap-around support services that build healthy life skills and habits related to cooking and eating. Courses may cover everything from shopping and food preparation to portion control, and ideally take into account environmental and budget limitations. In addition to classes, some organizations sponsor community gardens, grocery store tours, or even prepare and share recipes with patients.
Taken together, these services provide a powerful way to positively impact the communities we serve while also lowering total health care expenditures. Email me for more information on our food insecurity and community partnership research.
Employer and Community Partnerships,