Fresh produce and ingredients are some of the keys to a healthy diet, but access to healthy food is not easy for everyone.
Before the pandemic, about 10% of people in the U.S. were considered food insecure, but that number is rising, now standing at about 15%, according to Hartford HealthCare.
Hartford HealthCare is stepping up to make healthy eating a reality for more people, launching a new program that treats food as medicine.
The prescription for good health may just start with papaya, pineapples, peppers and other produce.
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“We do believe that food is medicine. You are what you eat, you can live a healthier life if you consume better food,” Greg Jones, vice president of community health and engagement, said.
The brand new one-stop-shop is on Hartford HealthCare’s downtown Hartford campus.
“The concept of a food pantry is not unique. The concept of food for health is unique,” Dave Fichandler, senior director of clinical operations, said.
“What's the special sauce, as we like to say, about this food for health center is that it offers clinical referrals, it offers a nutritionist, it’s easily accessible to the community in which we reside,” Jones said.
The health experts behind the little shop say healthy eating is key to reducing chronic disease. So far, about 80 people are going home with bags full of food, for free, through the pilot program that launched this month. That includes some hospital staff.
“They could come as often as every week,” Dr. Jessica Mullins, director of gynecology, minimally invasive gynecologic surgery, Department of OB/GYN, said.
The idea for Food As Medicine was formed in 2018, when Hartford HealthCare did a community assessment and saw a major need.
“Hartford has been described as a food desert,” Fichandler said. “We know that our patients are choosing between health and rent, health and travel, health and medical appointments or medicines.”
Hartford HealthCare reports that one in three of their patients experiences food security, mirroring numbers reported in the City of Hartford.
“It’s not only the patient, it's the family,” Fichandler said. “It's not one person in isolation who is potentially having some health concerns or not eating healthy. It's the spouse, it's the children. It's a multi-generational family. So the opportunity to change health longitudinally over time is really just so important, impactful.”
Mullins said when the Women’s Ambulatory Health Services Center started screening patients in 2019, they found about 25% of patients were food insecure. Today, she says, 50% of their patients are lacking access to nutrition.
“It's really disproportionately affecting patients in our local communities,” Mullins said. “It's just not easy to get fresh produce around here. There are transportation issues, there are access issues.”
While the new 1,000-square-foot space looks like a small grocery story, clinicians help patients learn about nutrition.
“The educational piece is vital, right, because we can provide food for perpetuity. But if it doesn't help change people's health, we're not going to change their habits,” Fichandler said.
There are plenty of options, whether a family is looking for fruits and veggies, or “frutas y verduras.”
“We do want to keep in mind of the cultural backgrounds of our patients as well,” Mullins said. “We make sure that everything's in Spanish, because the majority of our patients are Hispanic or Latinx.”
An interpreter helps Spanish-speakers, while a dietician also provides recipes that show people how to incorporate healthy options into recipes from their own culture.
Program coordinators hope to expand the concept to other hospitals across the system.
“It is turning lives around,” Jones said. “The clinicians are telling me that anywhere from 40 to 80% of the illnesses that we face come from things that we do to our bodies and things that we put in our bodies. So if we can just change a little bit of that, we might be able to help improve the lives of many folks.”
People interested in utilizing the program can see if they are eligible for referral through Hartford HealthCare.