It can take more than good intentions to live healthily these days — especially when putting food on the table, alone, is a struggle. This is a position in which many working (and impoverished) families increasingly find themselves.
For example, according to Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2014” report, roughly 25 million of the national food bank network’s clients lived in employed households. There is, of course, no sign of these trends turning around anytime soon.
None of this is breaking news. However, well worth noting is that Second Harvest Heartland, a member of Feeding America, has created partnerships to stand as a strong resource of invaluable aid, food and health care – especially regarding diabetes and heart disease.
Kristen Williamson, Healthcare Project Coordinator and registered dietitian at Second Harvest, notes that the organization is protected somewhat from national policy changes.
“A lot of our work has revolved around partnering with [other] agencies, utilizing purchased products and donations. Regardless, we’ll still be here, doing our job that we firmly believe in. We really are there to serve people in need.”
Current partnerships include its FOODRx initiative with Hennepin Healthcare, formerly known as Hennepin County Medical Center, which launched in November 2017 and with CentraCare in St. Cloud, which has been ongoing since 2016.
The initiative provides participants living with chronic diseases a week’s worth of dietitian-approved food and vouchers for fresh produce in tandem with their care at the medical centers. The program used food insecurity data and heat to determine which clinics to focus on within St. Cloud and Hennepin County.
“Each month, participants…received educational materials in the [food] box on healthy eating and recipes designed to help patients utilize the food in the box. Participants in the CentraCare study also received a voucher for fresh fruits and vegetables to supplement the shelf-stable items in the box,” said Williamson.
“These food items, along with the recipes, provided healthy options for patients enrolled in the FOODRx program.” Nutrition education was also provided by certified diabetes educators and registered dietitians.
While all the boxes share the same design, participants are able to select one of three culturally specific food types: Traditional American, Somali and Hispanic.
Williamson noted, “We currently provide shelf-stable FOODRx boxes filled with canned fruits packed in juice and no-salt vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins – all items that make up a balanced diet.
“We are measuring not only health outcomes, but cost of care, she added. “We’ve learned a lot by integrating with the healthcare system, how that works, and also the best way to address food insecurity.”
This is especially significant for African Americans who, in addition to being constant food shelf clients, hold the dubious distinction of leading the U.S. in suffering diabetes and experiencing cardiovascular disorders. A 2017 report from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute shows that diabetes is 66 percent more common among African Americans than among Whites.
Other studies show Blacks are also nearly six times more likely to be afflicted with kidney disease. In addition, African American life expectancy is 3.4 years shorter than Whites – 75.5 as opposed to 78.9 years – chiefly owing to more heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure and strokes.
The prevalence of high blood pressure in African Americans, also called hypertension, is the highest in the world and can permanently damage the heart before showing any symptoms, hence the term “silent killer.” It is more severe in African Americans and often develops earlier in life.
According to the American Heart Association, 13.8 percent of African American children have high blood pressure, making it likely they will endure elevated blood pressure throughout their lives.
“One of the biggest things we look at in the project is that we focused on the [individuals] so that the programming made a community connection. Throughout the process we kept that in mind, focusing on what they can get from [it], including culturally specific [food boxes], hands-on assistance, and coordination.”
“We’re anxious to see the results of the studies. I think we’re aiming for the end of the summer.”
Williamson adds that the outlook is bright. “The feedback we’ve received [from participants] is very positive about being enrolled and how we are addressing food insecurities. So, we’re excited about that. The patient feedback we’ve received makes us really optimistic.”
“Each month, participants received educational materials on healthy eating and recipes designed to help patients utilize the food in the box.”
This article is supported in part by a grant from the Medtronic Foundation.