Esther Liew, Food for Change Health Partnerships Coordinator, Houston Food Bank

Our Presenter Spotlight Series highlights the dozens of leaders dedicated to achieving health equity who will present their ideas at the 2019 National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in San Diego, Calif. on Oct. 20-22nd.

In order to learn more about careers in the social determinant sector, we asked some of our health equity leaders who will be presenters at our Summit to describe what their work is like, the challenges they face and what they are most proud of.

Esther Liew will be presenting at the New Approaches Breakout Session titled, “You Complete Me.” This session will be an interactive examination of relationship building in the healthcare sector: “Speed Dating,” “Dating,” and “Marriage.” The interactive presentation will allow participants to utilize a framework, anticipate pitfalls, and identify the stage of a relationship they’re in to discern if it is worth the investment of time and resources.

What are some major takeaways that you want others to learn about you and the work that you do?

Esther Liew: I am a social worker by training. Having this background has allowed me to view my work through the ecological perspective and with the strengths-based approach. Coming into the food banking world to build health partnerships was a natural fit for me because my training had taught me to view every client issue as multifaceted and at times, with multiple complex factors influencing the client’s situation. Social determinants of health became the now widely used nomenclature to describe what was known to me as the ecological perspective.

One of my hopes at the Houston Food Bank is to engage our internal staff to view our work as not just feeding hungry people or reducing food insecurity, but improving economic and health equity in the communities that we serve. This takes intentionality as it is a paradigm shift away from traditional food banking. It takes courage to talk about systemic injustices in a place where that is not the norm. My department, Food for Change, is demonstrating the promotion of equity by partnering with organizations that largely serve underserved communities and which aim to improve the economic and health outcomes through the programs they provide. Examples include Federally Qualified Health Centers, the local workforce board, community colleges, and ESL programs. Food for Change connects clients at these organizations with nutritious food, and we measure the impact of these partnerships on key economic and health indicators.

What does it take to be an effective leader in this field?

Esther Liew: An effective leader first checks their biases and listens. To serve clients according to their needs, we need to hear directly from them. Then we act upon this feedback and make modifications and improvements to the ways that we’re providing services. This develops trust between service provider and the community. The leader also builds trust with their staff by creating a safe space where people can courageously provide honest feedback and know that the leader is in it with them to make change.

In what areas have you made the most impact, what have you learned and what has motivated you to continue work in this field?

Esther Liew: I’ve been most impactful in building partnerships with health organizations to implement food insecurity screenings, food prescription programs, and developing a data tracking tool to measure the impact of these programs for each partnership. I think that these can serve as models for other Community Based Organizations who seek to establish their own healthcare partnerships.

In my previous role, I built partnerships with organizations with goals of improving financial capability; now I do that with organizations that seek to improve health outcomes. I continue to learn the best methods to help the partner see the big picture of improving equity, developing a program that meets both organizations’ needs, and negotiating terms of partnership (everyone wants something out of the partnership, but what will be the most impactful results).

I’m happy to have landed at the Houston Food Bank because I get to combine my personal love for food and professional goal of improving the health of vulnerable communities. What keeps me going is knowing that the health programs that I work on are meeting the needs of both healthcare providers and their patients. I can connect patients to something as simple as fresh fruits and vegetables, and know that this could extend their health by years, change their children’s eating habits, encourage more family meal times together, and improve the next generation’s health. Just knowing this far reaching impact is worth it.

WATCH: Houston Food Bank President & CEO, Brian Greene, discussing the future of food banking