FLINT, MI — When an accident left Roosevelt Morton with a broken jaw, the last thing he thought his doctor would do was refer him to a food pantry.
To Morton’s surprise, he wasn’t being referred to a traditional food pantry, he was being referred to the Hurley Food FARMacy.
Greeted with the “sweetest smile,” from registered dietitian and Hurley Food FARMacy Coordinator, Susanne Gunsorek, Morton said he could immediately tell this pantry was different.
When Morton came into the Food FARMacy, Gunsorek took note of his broken jaw and the appropriate food he’d be able to consume.
Gunsorek visits the Eastern Michigan Food Bank every Wednesday. The bank allows her 20 minutes to buy whatever she can gather.
“They’re selling semi-damaged goods for cents a pound,” Gunsorek said. “This is produce that might be a little bruised, or boxes that are a little beat up but the food is still good. I try to focus on the healthier options, so whole wheat and multigrain bread, fruit, granola bars or oatmeal.”
On Feb. 21 Gunsorek attended the Eastern Michigan Food Bank with Hurley Food FARMacy volunteer Sheryl Deutsch.
“We need to make sure to grab mashed potatoes, grits and oatmeal for Roosevelt,” she told Deutsch.
The next time Morton visited the Food FARMacy he noticed a sticky note with his name on it posted to the food he’d be able to take home and eat.
“I thought, ‘wow, someone is actually thinking about me,'” Morton said. “I started crying and hugged her because I was so touched that she thought of me. Ms. Susanne’s smile and welcoming presence means so much. She makes you feel like a person, not a hand out.”
The Food FARMacy’s mission is to increase access to healthy foods for Hurley’s patients who have insufficient, regular access to nutritious food and to provide specific community resources to assist these patients long-term.
“We are the only Food FARMacy in the state that we are aware of. Some other hospitals are partnering with food banks, etcetera, to pilot some take-home food boxes, though,” Administrator of Wellness and Population Health Alisa Craig said. “Nationally — several are doing some food insecurity initiatives and growing every day.”
It opened in August 2017 and has served 550 referred patients and 1,956 household members as of January.
“Hurley worked with the Greater Flint Health Coalition, Genesys and McLaren to develop a joint Community Health Needs Assessment in 2016,” Gunsorek said. “It’s meant to help determine the social needs in this community. The assessment highlighted a lot of different areas with food insecurity being up there on the top of the list.”
According to the assessment results, 82 percent of county residents report they do not consume an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables.
“For those living in Flint’s food desert, the lack of access prohibits healthy choices. The city of Flint has only one chain grocery store compared to 54 liquor stores for food access within city limits. Only 21 percent of the sample convenience stores offer fresh produce,” according to the assessment.
It also states that “low-income residents are disproportionately affected regarding food access. The lack of adequate food transportation is one large contributing factor for Flint residents being able to access healthy food.”
Once learning Flint’s average food insecurity rate, 18.02 percent, is higher than the national average, 15.21 percent, Craig decided Hurley should try to help address the issue for its patients.
Craig began visiting ProMedica Toledo Hospital, which has a similar food assistance program and was the inspiration for the Food FARMacy.
“They were wonderful about sharing everything that they’re doing,” Gunsorek said. “She took that information and customized it to meet the needs of the Flint community.”
Doctors print off a referral for their patients to the Food FARMacy. The referral provides them with two days of healthy food for themselves and their household. It can be used twice a month for three months.
The referral is given after patients answer “yes,” or “sometimes,” to two questions about experiencing food insecurity within the past 12 months.
“The patients are just thrilled that the physician even cares to ask that question,” Gunsorek said.
Gunsorek then greets patients who come in and they fill out a one-page sheet to determine their health needs and family size.
“We’re asking them about chronic conditions such as high pressure or heart disease so that we can help them get the right food,” she said.
Afterward, Gunsorek walks them through the different rooms with food and offers nutritional guidance.
“We give people the opportunity to choose rather than providing a box, which I think is a huge satisfier for people, just that little bit of choice,” Gunsorek said.
Having a registered clinical dietitian differentiates the Food FARMacy from other food pantries, Gunsorek said.
“When patients come in, we just kind of walk and talk,” Gunsorek said. “Say we’re in the room where the fruits and vegetables are, I’ll point out the ones that are no salt added or no sugar added and talk about portion size.”
After going through each room and picking out food, Gunsorek asks patients questions to find out what community resources they need for long-term food suitability.
“There are a lot in Flint, but patients don’t always know about them or there are roadblocks such as not having a computer to sign up for these resources,” she said.
The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan supplies two SNAP enrollment specialists twice a week for patients and an AmeriCorps team comes in once a week to get patients enrolled in Double Up Food Bucks, according to Craig.
All of the food supplied at the Food FARMacy is purchased from the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. A 5,200-pound shipment of U.S.D.A surplus food, produce and other food is delivered once a month.
The personalized experience at the Food FARMacy moved Roosevelt and another patient, Doug Walton, to volunteer unloading the shipment.
Gunsorek said it is vital to address food insecurity in the Flint community because it’s a chain reaction that can keep patients from other obligations, such as buying medicine or budgeting bills.
“We know as medical professionals, no matter what you do to help a person, if they don’t have adequate nutrition, they’re not going to be able to get well and stay well,” Gunsorek said. “The food need really has to be satisfied first and once it is, then people are able to deal with other life stressors.”
Walton, who receives Social Security benefits, said the Food FARMacy is providing him with healthy options he’s been unable to find at other food pantries.
“They have meat and produce that other pantries can’t supply,” Walton said. “I’ll be honest with you, this program has really helped me make ends meet. After all my medical, electrical and other bills are paid, I’m barely scraping by at the end of the month.”
Both Walton and Morton are outpatients who see physicians at the Hamilton Medical Center. The Food FARMacy began offering services to out-patients in December and saw a large increase in patient participation.
From August to December 2017, 1,204 patients, including family members, were served with 332 unique visits. In January, the Food FARMacy saw 218 patients, averaging 15 visitors per day, Gunsorek said.
“The numbers just skyrocketed,” she said. “Part of it has to do with the fact that a majority of our outpatients require the most need. They’re our most vulnerable patients. The other part, from what I’ve heard from patients, is really high fuel bills in the winter.”
Gunsorek said she’s had patients come in showing her fuel bills that have tripled since the summer. To Gunsorek, the simple solution was to budget, but she said she soon realized they don’t have the steady funds to save up in the summer like she does.
“I’ve learned so much from the relationships I’ve developed with my patients,” Gunsorek said. “Being connected with this Food FARMacy is a dream come true for a dietician because now I have the means to be able to teach people how to eat healthy regardless of how much they make.”