When Darla was diagnosed with heart disease and type 2 diabetes two years ago, she knew she needed to improve her health through diet. But with Darla’s limited income, she couldn’t afford the fruits and vegetables she knew she needed. So when she discovered a weekly produce distribution site in her South Minneapolis neighborhood, she was hopeful.
“With the boxes of fresh produce I get from the foodshelf, I’m able to manage my heart condition and keep my diabetes under the control. I just can’t afford healthy food and pay for my medications at the same time.”
Why Food Access and Nutrition Matter
Darla’s situation is similar to many who struggle with food insecurity. Research has found that proper nutrition and access to food play an important role in prevention, treatment and recovery for many health conditions, which can be challenging for high-need patients. A 2010 study by the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, reported that the effects of hunger annually cost the Minnesota economy at least $1.26 billion in medical and health care costs.
In spite of the connection between food access, nutrition and health, the health care system and hunger relief systems have historically functioned largely apart from each other. Non-profits in hunger relief do not reach nearly all people who need food, and health care providers serve many food insecure patients who could be connected to food support, which could play an important role in their health outcomes.
The Opportunity: Better Health, Less Hunger
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has analyzed the potential for greater integration between health care and hunger relief and indicates that if the medical and hunger relief sectors partner to increase access to healthy foods, Minnesota’s 100 million missing meal gap could potentially be reduced by 25 percent or more.
“Hospitals are seeing large numbers of food insecure patients, but most are not participating in any food relief programs. If we can get those providers engaged and asking the right questions, there’s an opportunity to provide wider-reaching food relief services that can be convenient and comfortable for clients,” said Rob Zeaske, CEO, Second Harvest Heartland.
Projects and Pilots at the Intersection
How can hunger relief and health care work in tandem? In Minnesota and around the country, a few initiatives and pilots are already in place—from clinics developing food insecurity screening tools that lead to patient referrals to food shelves or a SNAP application process, to food banks identifying clients with type 2 diabetes and providing appropriate food, nutrition and health education.
Locally, the Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) provides an onsite food shelf in the form of a Therapeutic Food Pharmacy to high-need patients, with some food provided by Second Harvest Heartland. Diana Cutts, MD, Department of Pediatrics, HCMC and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, helped launch the foodshelf in 2010.
“One third of families that I see are food insecure,” said Dr. Cutts. “Do I always think about hunger when I’m seeing a kid for repeated ear infections? Logically, I know infections and food insecurity are related, but I don’t always think about it. So having an onsite resource available like the food pharmacy is valuable.”