Hospitals Can Promote Healthy Eating in Food Deserts
By Melinda Young
As one medical center shows, it is possible for health systems and healthcare professionals, including case managers, to reduce food insecurity in their communities through a variety of programs.
The goal could be to bring more healthy food and fresh fruits and vegetables to people who live in food deserts where such produce is hard to obtain.
A program called the Grateful Heart, developed in 2016, is a partnership between a hospital, local youth, and local farms. Youth take from farms that otherwise would waste in the fields to the hospital’s culinary experts to make healthy casseroles, soups, and stews, says Tiffany Tobin, MS, director of hospitality services at Southwestern Vermont Health Care (SVHC). The healthy meals are delivered to local organizations for distribution.
“We package and freeze them and distribute them throughout the community to local food pantries,” Tobin says. “It’s a phenomenal program. We’ve produced over 50,000 meals since 2016.”
High school students would help with packaging and delivery, says Billie Lynn Allard, MS, RN, FAAN, a consultant with SVHC. They also distributed the meals to their transitional care patients as needed.
“A transitional care team member goes into the patient’s home and checks their refrigerator to see if their food is spoiled,” Allard explains. “They bring the healthy food in and put it in their freezer to help them get through some days until they can go to the grocery store.”
The program is rewarding for everyone involved, and it provides healthy meals to the community. “We also utilize any of our overstock, leftovers,” Tobin says. “When we’re producing food for our patients, we produce double the amount needed and use the other half for the meals we’re putting out.”
This program continued through the COVID-19 pandemic, although it was adjusted to account for staffing.
“We had to focus our staff and priorities on the patient’s needs during COVID, so the Grateful Heart group sought other relationships in the community to support them,” Tobin explains. “We continued to utilize our leftovers by giving them to the homeless shelter.”
The hospital also addressed food insecurity by providing vouchers to patients for Meals on Wheels delivery. “A lot of them didn’t want charity, so we would convince them,” Allard says. “A magic piece of our success was the transitional care nurse who became a trusted person in their lives.”
Patients who met with transitional care nurses while in the hospital would grow to trust them and allow them to visit their homes.
“When we got into people’s homes, we saw even more than we saw in the hospital, and built trust pretty quickly,” Allard says.
SVHC also helped create the Bennington Community Market, a nonprofit, community-supported grocery store that supports local farmers. Everyone in the community can access healthy food in the market. “A great team has forged the way through and made it to fruition here, and it’s looking to open very soon,” Tobin notes. The hospital connected the market’s leadership with local resources to make all the parts work, she adds.
Putting nonprofit food markets in urban areas and other food deserts is important for residents who live in those communities. “This market is going to help low- and moderate-income people by providing discounts and vouchers and different healthy food access funds,” Tobin says. “When we look at population health and wellness, we know food insecurity and healthy food access drive a lot of those components of illness. Having downtown food access will help increase the health and well-being of our community.”
Before the pandemic, the hospital’s food bank truck, called VeggieVanGo, would deliver free fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods to those in need in the community. “We were servicing over 300 families at each distribution, and we’d do fun music and healthy food preparations of the items,” Tobin says. “We taught people how to make homemade applesauce with apples they got that week.”
The food van is handled by different community groups now because the hospital system could not maintain it during the pandemic and COVID-19 surges. “The hospital system was the largest presence in the beginning,” Tobin adds. “There were designated locations at schools and housing complex areas where the van would be for an hour to deliver the healthy food.”
It is helpful for a health system to interpret its population health mission to helping local organizations that provide food for people in need. “It’s about connecting folks in the community,” Tobin says.
As one medical center shows, it is possible for health systems and healthcare professionals, including case managers, to reduce food insecurity in their communities through a variety of programs. The goal could be to bring more healthy food and fresh fruits and vegetables to people who live in food deserts where such produce is hard to obtain.
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