Let’s Come to the Table to End Hunger

Treating patients who are hungry, malnourished or cannot afford healthy food has become an all-too-familiar occurrence at hospitals nationwide. Most physicians and nurses would acknowledge that the issue is encountered daily.

Hunger as a social determinant of health is increasingly being recognized as an issue of focus for the healthcare industry. Nutritious food is a very basic need to maintain health and well-being, but for far too many people, such a valuable commodity is scarce. More than 50 million Americans – a third of whom are children – do not know where their next meal is going to come from at some time each year. The economic viability of our communities also is affected by hunger. Nationwide, estimated healthcare costs related to hunger total a staggering $130.5 billion a year.

Without nutritious food, patients are physically unable to recover as well as they should. Chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, are exacerbated by hunger and malnutrition. So are obesity and mental illnesses. Of special concern, for both social and economic reasons, is how hunger and malnutrition affect the health of three vulnerable populations: seniors, pregnant women and children.

Among elderly people, malnutrition aggravates diseases and increases disability. It decreases resistance to infection and extends hospital stays, helping to increase healthcare costs because of higher complication rates. Pregnant women who lack sufficient access to nutritious food often deliver underweight babies, which can affect a newborn’s health and development. Hungry children are more prone to colds, developmental delays, ear infections, and other ailments. Research shows even one childhood experience with hunger can have a negative impact on the person’s health 10 to 15 years later.

Hospitals Can Address Hunger in Their Communities

Healthcare organizations can help provide access to high-quality, nutritious food and end hunger in our communities. ProMedica, for example, is working with large foodservice operations to repackage un-served food for homeless shelters and other communal feeding sites. More than 53,000 pounds of food has been reclaimed since our program started in early 2013. Otherwise, all of these vegetables, fruits, meats, and other dishes would have gone to waste.

Two part-time ProMedica employees work at Hollywood Casino Toledo to repackage food that primarily had been prepared for the buffet, which makes up the bulk of our collections. ProMedica Toledo Hospital, our largest hospital, also repackages un-served food. We continue to partner with more local foodservice venues to set up their own repackaging programs

ProMedica also secured a federal grant to operate a mobile program with a partner in one of the counties we serve in southeast Michigan. Our “Veggie Mobile” makes stops at senior centers and other community locations so residents can buy affordable produce from area farmers’ markets and local producers.

Additionally, we are beginning to screen patients for hunger and food insecurity. That way, we can discharge them with an emergency food supply and help connect them to community resources for further assistance. Many people facing hunger are not aware of the variety of assistance that is available, but through our Come to the Table initiative to address hunger as a health issue, we are working with various community partners to improve education about and access to these programs.

ProMedica is helping agencies and municipalities in our 27-county service area in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan pool resources and share best practices to help identify and ultimately end hunger in our region. Our partners include school systems, food banks, the YMCA, United Way, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, grocery stores, faith-based organizations, and government leaders. Financial assistance through the ProMedica Advocacy Fund, volunteer hours from employees at all levels in our organization, and donations from biannual food drives at our hospitals and offices are among other efforts.

Partner With Social Service, Government Leaders

We believe another key to improving access to nutritious food and ending hunger in communities nationwide is by partnering with social service and government leaders so as to confront the issue from multiple angles. Some or all of our programs and commitments can be replicated by other U.S. healthcare organizations. Indeed, we based our food reclamation program on the successful model at Forgotten Harvest in the Detroit area.

To further a national discussion about addressing hunger as a health issue and its far-reaching implications, ProMedica and other anti-hunger advocates are bringing together healthcare leaders and government officials. In collaboration with the Alliance to End Hunger, ProMedica is holding a Come to the Table summit in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 2014.

Collectively, we believe we can – and must – make a commitment to develop sustainable solutions to ending U.S. hunger. We continue to invite healthcare leaders to lend their voice and expertise to this critical issue. For more information, please visit www.promedica.org/cometothetablesummit.

Randy Oostra, DM, FACHE, is president and chief executive officer of ProMedica, a mission-driven, not-for-profit healthcare system serving northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Oostra earned a doctoral degree in management from Case Western Reserve University, and he holds two master’s degrees, one in healthcare administration from the University of Minnesota and the other in management from the University of Wisconsin.