County, Food Bank Battle Food Insecurity

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Twenty percent of children in Cook County are what’s known as food insecure–living in families who can’t afford or can’t access nutritious food. A new program aims to tackle food insecurity among some Chicago-area children and their parents.

Guadalupe Guzman has been coming to the Logan Square Health Center for more than a dozen years. During a visit this fall, her doctor started asking her about food.

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“She asked me how much I was feeding the boys, how many times a day, what were the portions, how much milk, dairy they were taking into their system,” Guzman said.

Guzman’s main job is as a tax preparer, so she only works consistently a few months each year. And that can make buying fresh food hard.

“We could buy certain amounts of fruits and vegetables, and it got to the point where it was too expensive for us to maintain,” Guzman said. “It’s a family of five, so when this opportunity came up I was really excited to get fruits and vegetables.”

That opportunity is a new partnership between the Cook County Health and Hospitals System and the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Once a month, the Depository is sending a fresh food truck to the county’s Logan Square Health Center. Right now, it’s a pilot program. Doctors have started asking questions to screen for food insecurity.

Dr. Denise CunillDr. Denise Cunill “Since September of this year, over half of our patients have screened positive for food insecurity,” said pediatrician Dr. Denise Cunill, medical director of the Logan Square Health Center. She says expanded access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act has brought more people into her clinic–many of them working poor, making just enough money not to qualify for state and federal programs that could help them get fresh food.

“What they end up doing is cutting back on meals or purchasing pre-packaged meals outside of the home that perhaps cost a little bit less compared with fruits and vegetables and other more nutrient-dense foods,” Cunill said.

“Quality fresh food can be the most expensive food, and for too many families it’s hard to come by,” said Kate Maehr, CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

With that in mind, the depository wants to expand its focus to bring fresh foods into the community–driven, in part, by data from a Feeding America survey.

“We realized that we no longer had the luxury to distribute any food,” Maehr said. “We had to be really mindful about the types of food that we were connecting our neighbors with.”

The partnership between Cook County and the food depository is backed by new recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to screen young patients for food insecurity.

But identifying patients who need access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a lot easier than getting that food to them.

“Frankly, that presents a real challenge for us right now. We have to go out every day and get donations of this fresh food in, and we also need donations of financial support to make sure that we have the infrastructure: the refrigeration, the refrigerated trucks that make it possible to move that food throughout the network,” Maehr said.

And it’s not just adding infrastructure–it’s changing mindsets.

Kate MaehrKate Maehr “Hunger is not something that is taught in medical school,” Maher said. “And so it requires us sitting down with providers and health systems and helping them understand why we really need to fight to make sure that all of the men and women and children who are coming into clinics have access to the food that they need to be healthy.”

It’s easy for Dr. Cunill to understand why it’s important. In food insecure families, she says younger kids tend to have anemia and obesity. In the older kids, it’s mental illnesses like depression.

“They are trying to figure out, ‘How can I help mom and dad or my parent stretch this month’s money so that we have food for my younger siblings?’”

The hope is that connecting pediatric and adult patients with fresh food means better health outcomes–and less money spent on health care–in the long run.

The county and the depository plan to expand the pilot program to the Cottage Grove health clinic in Ford Heights in February. The goal is to have monthly fresh food truck visits at all 16 Cook County health clinics by 2017.

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