Health Care News

In the Land of Plenty, People Still Struggle with Hunger

Ron Yee, MD, Chief Medical Officer of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC)

The U.S. may seem to have a bounty of healthy, nutritious foods to feast on this Thanksgiving week but for many families it’s a different story. Approximately 14 percent of our nation’s population (48 million) struggle to put healthy meals on the table. Food insecurity is what experts now define as America’s hunger problem and poverty is typically the underlying cause.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are not only expensive in today’s markets, but also a rare commodity in low income neighborhoods where check cashing operations or liquor stores are readily available.

As a nation, we pay a heavy price for failing to provide affordable fresh food selections for low income people in the land of plenty. As a former Community Health Center doctor, I found that many of my patients were undernourished, suffering from chronic health problems, such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease.  Yet, simply prescribing a better diet sometimes wasn’t an option for my patients, who were often confronted with hard choices between paying the rent or buying groceries. There were also other obstacles – a lack of transportation, language barriers, illiteracy or scarce food assistance programs.  These were not the problems of one person or even one family, but a multitude of families.  And when a problem affects an entire community, it is a public health issue that demands attention.

Community Health Centers by mission look beyond the medical chart to find solutions that do not just prevent illness, but directly address the root causes of it. This is not a new approach but one pioneered by the co-founder of the Community Health Center Movement, Dr. H. Jack Geiger, more than 50 years ago.  Dr. Geiger wrote prescriptions for groceries when he started one of the first health centers in rural Mississippi, explaining, “The last time I looked in the book for a specific therapy for malnutrition, it was food.”  Today, the effort to fight hunger and poverty continues with innovation and no small amount of ingenuity.  For the first time, the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), with help from the Medtronic Foundation, is collecting data on how health centers are tackling food insecurity in communities around the country.

A few highlights:

Brockton Neighborhood Health Center, Brockton, MA The health center has opened a new site with a teaching kitchen.  It has also collaborated with a local grocer to open a new grocery store next door.  The health center also formed a partnership with a statewide coalition that raises funds to help organizations meet food insecurity needs and teamed up with a college that runs a campus farm which sells produce during the summer months to health center patients.

Cornell Scott-Hill Health Center, New Haven CT The health center has an industrial kitchen and chef and offers classes on nutrition and food preparation. Cornell Scott also launched “Healthy Snacks for Children” and a snack closet.  It also sponsors a food drive.  Last year they delivered 50 baskets of food to needy families.  Next year’s goal is to serve 100 families.

Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation, Whitesburg, KY The health center operates a “Farmacy” program with food prescriptions for patients with specific chronic diseases, Type 1 diabetes, pregnancy or simply living in poverty, to use at the local farmers’ market.  The center’s nutrition education programs have led to 70 percent of users canning or freezing during the off season.

Petaluma Health Center, Petaluma, CA The health center operates a community “clinic garden” for nutrition education and a Farmacy food program with a sliding fee offered at a farmer’s market.  It also operates a teaching kitchen for cooking demonstrations and nutrition education.

These examples are just a snapshot of what is happening at health centers which are devising new ways to solve an old problem. More exciting is that, thanks to their work, the practice of identifying and addressing food insecurity as part of integrated patient care is growing.  As health centers learn more about the problems of food insecurity, they are developing unique solutions that work. To learn more about these efforts in communities please view resources from NACHC’s “Community Health Centers as Food Oasis Partners: Addressing Food Insecurity for Patient and Communities” project.