Fresh produce and ingredients are some of the keys to healthy eating, but access to healthy eating isn’t easy for everyone.
Before the pandemic, about 10% of people in the United States were considered food insecure, but that number is increasing, now standing at about 15%, according to Hartford HealthCare.
Hartford HealthCare is committed to making healthy eating a reality for more people, launching a new program that treats food like medicine.
The prescription for good health can start with papaya, pineapples, peppers and other produce.
“We believe that food is medicine. You are what you eat, you can live a healthier life if you eat better food,” said Greg Jones, vice president of health and community engagement.
The brand new one-stop-shop is located on the downtown campus of Hartford HealthCare in Hartford.
“The concept of a pantry is not unique. The Food for Health concept is unique,” said Dave Fichandler, Senior Director of Clinical Operations.
“What’s the special sauce, as we like to say, about this health food 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, around 80 people are returning home with bags full of food, free of charge, thanks to the pilot program launched this month. This includes some hospital staff.
“They could come as often as weekly,” said Dr. Jessica Mullins, director of gynecology, minimally invasive gynecological surgery, Department of OB/GYN.
The idea for Food As Medicine was born in 2018, when Hartford HealthCare conducted a community assessment and saw a major need.
“Hartford has been described as a food desert,” Fichandler said. “We know that our patients choose between health and rent, health and travel, medical and medical appointments or medication.”
Hartford HealthCare reports that one in three patients experience food safety, which mirrors numbers reported in the city of Hartford.
“It’s not just the patient, it’s the family,” Fichandler said. “He’s not an isolated person who potentially has health issues or doesn’t eat healthy. It’s the spouse, it’s the children. It’s a multi-generational family. So the ability to change health longitudinally over time is really so important, impactful.
Mullins said when the Women’s Ambulatory Health Services Center began screening patients in 2019, they found about 25% of patients were food insecure. Today, she says, 50% of their patients do not have access to nutrition.
“It really disproportionately affects patients in our local communities,” Mullins said. “It’s just not easy to get fresh produce here. There are transport problems, there are access problems.
While the new 1,000 square foot space resembles a small grocery store, clinicians help patients learn about nutrition.
“The educational part is vital, isn’t it, because we can provide food in perpetuity. But if it doesn’t help change people’s health, we’re not going to change their habits,” Fichandler said.
There are many options, whether a family is looking for fruit and vegetables or “frutas y verduras”.
“We also want to keep in mind the cultural background of our patients,” Mullins said. “We make sure everything is in Spanish, as the majority of our patients are Hispanic or Latino.”
An interpreter assists Spanish speakers, while a dietician also offers 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 in the system.
“It changes lives,” Jones said. “Clinicians tell me that 40-80% of the diseases we face come from things we do to our bodies and things we put into our bodies. So if we can change that a bit, maybe we can- to help improve the lives of many people.”
Those interested in using the program can see if they are eligible to be referred by Hartford HealthCare.