Closing the Loop: Connecting Hunger and Healthcare

Despite having the largest economy in the world, millions of Americans experience food insecurity and hunger each day. Food insecurity is a condition assessed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that measures household-level economic and social conditions of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. Meanwhile, hunger is an individual-level physiological condition that results as a consequence from food insecurity. According to the Economic Research Service in 2017, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans are food insecure, which roughly equates to 40 million Americans who do not have consistent access to food. Food insecurity is a complex issue that stems from poverty and has profound impact as a social determinant of health. When resources are stretched and food insecure households are met with tough financial decisions, food is often the last basic need to be covered. Based on research from the Hunger in America study in 2014, 66% of food insecure households served by the Feeding America network had to choose between food and medical care, 69% had to choose between food and utilities, and 57% had to choose between food and housing. Strategies to integrate anti-hunger efforts with healthcare systems are crucial to addressing the impact food and nutrition has on health outcomes. 

Food as a Health Intervention

The Greater Chicago Food Depository, a Root Cause Coalition Partner, is a regional food bank serving the Chicagoland area. As the primary food bank for Cook County, the Food Depository serves more than 800,000 people facing hunger each year. The Food Depository is at the center of a network of more than 700 partner organizations and programs – food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, mobile distributions and other partners – working to bring food, dignity and hope to families across Chicago and Cook County.  A rising number of the Food Depository’s partnerships are with local healthcare organizations. The partnerships with the healthcare sector have been fruitful opportunities to address the inherent intersection between health and hunger. In collaboration with health care partners, the Food Depository develops a customized, nutrition access strategy to best fit the setting of the health care provider. With   the primary goal of supporting needs of patients who are identified as food insecure, health care partners are screening for food insecurity, referring patients to local resources like community food pantries, providing information on how to connect to SNAP benefits, and in some health care settings providing their own food response for patients.

After years of partnership between the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Access Community Health Network (ACCESS), the organizations developed a meal delivery pilot program to test an intervention to disrupt food insecurity and hunger for high-risk patients. The pilot program attempted to address the barriers to accessing nutritious food for high-risk patients who also screened as food insecure. The collaborative model of meal delivery provided daily meals to identified high-risk patients who were also receiving care coordinator support to help manage their chronic diseases. According to Amy Laboy, Senior Director of Programs at the Food Depository, “One of the most valuable resources people have is time. We need to make sure we are creating access points that are providing as much wraparound support and resources as possible.” By delivering the food directly to patients, the program helped to address the transportation barriers many patients faced in accessing hunger relief organizations. Furthermore, the weekly deliveries and check-in appointments with a care coordinator helped patients stay more connected to the healthcare system and better manage their health. Preliminary findings from the pilot program include program participants self-reporting improved health indicators. With such success, the Food Depository hopes to continue the partnership and expand the pilot program to reduce barriers to food access for more food-insecure patients. The pilot program demonstrates just one example of how hunger relief organizations and the healthcare system can innovatively collaborate to support people experiencing food insecurity.

Ending Hunger to Ensure Healthier Lives

Screening patients for food insecurity is a necessary first step to supporting people experiencing food insecurity.  However, healthcare organizations should also play a role in ensuring these patients are connected to hunger relief resources. Different healthcare organizations have different systems, processes, and capacities to connect patients with community-based organizations, so innovative strategies and collaborations are needed to reduce food insecurity. While alleviating food insecurity and hunger is crucial, a broader solution to ending hunger in our country is needed to promote healthier people and communities. There is a need for improved infrastructure to connect cross-sector organizations that address intersectional issues, such as hunger and health, and a need for increased investment in communities with limited access to nutritious and affordable foods. Cross-sector partnerships are pivotal to breaking down barriers to accessing food and working towards health equity.

About the Greater Chicago Food Depository

The Greater Chicago Food Depository, Chicago’s food bank, believes a healthy community starts with food. Founded in 1979, the Food Depository is a proud member of Feeding America – the national network of food banks. By working to help those most in need go from hungry to hopeful, the Food Depository is building a Greater Chicago. Learn more at chicagosfoodbank.org

Thank you, Amy Laboy, Senior Director of Programs, for informing this blog post.