Something new appeared in the Northwest Community Healthcare (NCH) Community Health Needs Assessment this year.
Community members who participated in the survey indicated that they or others they know are struggling to access or afford the nutritional foods they need to live a healthy lifestyle. The official term for this is “food insecurity.”
“You’d think it’d be all low-income people, but it is often seniors,” says Karen Baker, NCH’s Executive Director of Community Services. “They’re living on fixed incomes and trying to stay in their homes, so they’re having to pick and choose where their money goes.”
Food insecurity is something NCH will zero in on in the coming years through its new, multi-faceted FY2019-FY2020 Implementation Plan. The plan will help provide resources and financial support to people who, for a variety of reasons, can’t access fresh, healthy food. Some low-income families, for example, work multiple jobs so there isn’t time for food shopping and preparation. It’s easier and cheaper just to eat fast food.
This matters to NCH for multiple reasons. For one, it’s a hospital mission to help people in the community stay healthy, and it’s one NCH takes seriously. Also, a lack of proper nutrition can increase healthcare costs. Unhealthy eating can lead to problems like chronic disease, obesity and impaired growth in children.
“There are a lot of health implications of not having healthy food,” Baker says. “It’s our responsibility to address this.”
Beginning on December 1, NCH started asking every patient admitted to the hospital during an initial screening, “In the last 12 months, were you ever worried that your food would run out before you got money to buy more?”
If the answer is yes, a social worker gets involved, leading that person to resources like home-delivered meal programs (for seniors), local congregational meal programs, SNAP (food stamps) enrollment assistance or finding nearby food pantries where they can get the nutritional food they need.
Before they’re discharged from the hospital, they also may receive a pre-packed bag of healthy foods to take home. It comes from the volunteer-run NCH Food Pharmacy.
Beyond the hospital, NCH addresses food insecurity with continued partnerships with several northwest suburban social service organizations. It encourages employees to volunteer for charitable programs and host food drives.
Things like community gardens and summer feeding programs will receive continued financial support from NCH as will the food pantry in the Community Resource Center in Palatine.
The 2018 summer feeding program provided meals to more than 14,000 low-income students in Palatine Elementary School District 15 and Arlington Heights Elementary School District 25 – children who get a free lunch at school, but during the summer months, might not have access to healthy meals.
Since NCH is one of the only remaining independently owned hospitals in the Chicago area, it has more flexibility to reach out to people in the community compared to big hospital systems where the decision-makers are in other parts of the country. This allows it to design very localized programs like this one to promote wellness and disease prevention.
“Our leaders feel it’s very important to do these types of initiatives,” Baker says. “We invest a tremendous amount of resources to outreach, and I give so much kudos to our leadership for staying true to their mission.”