Last week, Second Harvest Heartland hosted a Hunger and Health Forum, supported by partners Boston Consulting Group (BCG), Hunger-Free Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio’s Healthy States Initiative. The forum was a gathering of top health care providers and insurers in the state, community and government partners, who came together to review a BCG research study and to explore new ways to link food insecurity interventions with health care initiatives, to provide for better patient outcomes.
Second Harvest Heartland’s Evolving Role in Hunger Relief
As a food bank, we collect and distribute more than 65 million meals each year to about 1,000 agency partner programs in our service area. At the same time, the number of food insecure still remains a concern. Along with hard-working food shelves and other agency partners, we are meeting a lot of the need, but not all of it.
“In response, we are looking for innovative ways to collaborate with some new community partners to help further close the missing meal gap,“ said Rob Zeaske, CEO, Second Harvest Heartland. “We believe that with our unique role in the emergency food system, we are well positioned to help create new system-level solutions backed by data-driven research. If we want to continue to reach more people with more meals, we’re going to have to continue to be creative.”
We turned to our partners at BCG to help us make sense of the health care landscape in Minnesota, as it relates to hunger relief.
Why Food Access and Nutrition Matter
A 2010 cost study by the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, reported that the effects of hunger annually cost the Minnesota economy $1.26 billion on medical and health care costs. Research has found that proper nutrition and access to food play an important role in prevention, treatment and recovery for many health conditions, which are more difficult for low-income patients to overcome. This disparity can result in less effective treatments and costly readmissions.
In spite of the connection between food access, nutrition and health, the health care system and hunger relief system have functioned largely apart from each other.
The Opportunity: Better Health, Less Hunger
Health care systems looking for a way to save costs and improve outcomes, research suggests, could look to addressing patient hunger. BCG’s analysis of the potential for greater integration between health care and hunger relief indicated that if the medical and hunger relief sectors partner to increase food access, the state’s 100 million missing meal gap could be reduced by 30-45 million meals per year.
“Health systems are an advantaged channel to solve hunger relief in Minnesota because of their ability to reach and serve many who are hungry,” said Peter Lawyer, Senior Partner and Managing Director, Boston Consulting Group. “Health systems are not a replacement for emergency food systems (i.e. food banks, food shelves, etc.) or government nutrition programs—they would work in conjunction with one another.”
Because they operate widely across the state, already serve significant numbers of food insecure patients and have existing infrastructure that might be used to help alleviate hunger, health care systems could be natural partners. Combine that with the benefits of improved food access to health outcomes (especially in the top chronic disease states including diabetes), there is compelling reasons for the two sectors to consider working together.
Projects and Pilots at the Intersection
How might it look to have hunger relief and health care working in tandem? In Minnesota and around the country, a few initiatives and pilots are already in place—from medical centers providing onsite food shelves in the form of “therapeutic food pharmacies” to clinics developing food insecurity screening tools that then lead to patient referrals to food shelves or a SNAP application process for them to gain more food security.
One local example is a just-announced pilot between Park Nicollet, Second Harvest Heartland, and Hunger-Free Minnesota, who are combining forces to focus on senior citizens recently discharged from inpatient care at Methodist Hospital. They will benefit from Park Nicollet’s innovative program engaging local firefighters to support the patient’s transition back home. To expand the benefits of the home visit, the pilot will:
- Utilize a simple food security screening tool at the home visit to understand if the patient’s recovery may be hindered by a lack of access to nutritious food
- Connect the patient to local resources, such as a nearby food shelf or appropriate benefits programs should the patient demonstrate need for assistance with food procurement
- Track outcomes, including re-admission rates, costs of care and utilization of hunger relief resources after discharge
The pilot partners hypothesize that by screening for hunger and providing appropriate meals to those struggling with food security, health outcomes improve and readmission rates decrease. A growing body of evidence suggests that access to nutritious food is vital to strong health.
We’re continuing the conversation with more leaders in the health care and hunger relief communities with a second briefing on June 13.