In the coming weeks, eligible patients at several South Jersey health centers will have access to free healthy food, visits with a dietician and culturally relevant recipes — in addition to whatever traditional medical care they may need.
Inspira Health, one of the area’s largest provider networks, plans to open so-called food “farmacies” at facilities in Cumberland and Gloucester counties as part of a growing effort to reduce hunger and improve health in a region that struggles with obesity, poverty and other wellness challenges.
The facilities, set to open in mid-March, will be stocked with fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious options provided through a partnership with local food banks, Inspira officials said. Regardless of their diagnoses, patients identified as “food insecure” will be referred to the farmacy where they can meet with a dietician and stock up on grocery items at no cost; these visits can continue for up to a year.
The initiative complements work Inspira is already doing to boost nutrition through a trio of school-based food pantries, also in partnership with the Food Bank of South Jersey and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. Programs at schools in Millville, Vineland and Woodbury with a high percentage of food insecure students allow parents to get free healthy groceries once a month, officials explained. Social service programs are also available onsite.
“If you impact what people put in their stomach, you can impact chronic disease,” said Dr. Alka Kohli, executive VP, clinical officer and population health chief at Inspira. Diet plays a huge role in conditions like diabetes and heart disease, which can become deadly if not properly managed.
The school-based programs have shown real promise, Kohli explained, but the on-site farmacies provide even more opportunity to connect people with the tools, knowledge and materials to help maintain their health. “Now we’re really educating them on food as medicine,” she said.
Childhood obesity among highest in NJ
Inspira is also hoping these programs can help address the region’s high rates of childhood obesity, which contribute to diabetes and other chronic diseases. On average, 15% of New Jersey youngsters age 10 to 17 are considered obese or overweight, according to the recent State of Childhood Obesity report, but the rates in Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties are double that or more — and among the state’s highest.
Higher obesity rates are just one of several poor health indicators that have plagued South Jersey, studies show. Substance use, mental health issues and teen pregnancy are also more common in these counties. “We’re high in all the wrong things,” lamented John DiAngelo, Inspira’s longtime president and CEO.
DiAngelo said that, as a health system, Inspira has “invested a lot of time and money over the past 20 years” trying to improve medical care and social conditions for patients who frequently seek care for chronic conditions in their emergency rooms. “And we really have not been able to move the needle,” he explained.
“We decided we needed to get involved in the social determinants of living outside of health care,” DiAngelo said. This focus reflects a larger, growing realization among health care providers that clinical care — at a hospital or doctor’s office — has only limited impact, when environmental and social conditions like poverty, racism, education and violence are responsible for much of an individual’s health and wellness.
This led Inspira to work with faith-based leaders and other advocates to build and support a “housing first” initiative to help Cumberland County residents facing chronic homelessness find a home and, if possible, other support services; so far, 70 people have been housed through the program, DiAngelo said. Many of these individuals were also regular visitors at the region’s hospitals, a pattern that has changed since they’ve found stable housing, he added.
Working with these community partners underscored the food insecurity many families faced, DiAngelo said, and it prompted Inspira to launch the school-based food pantries at early childhood programs, and elementary and junior high schools. Some 13% of Cumberland County households, and more than 9% of those in Gloucester, experience hunger at times in the week, according to a community needs survey cited by Inspira.
Aiding school-aged children
These programs, which are open to any families with children in the schools, are expected to provide healthy food to more than 1,800 people by the end of the year, officials said. “Alongside Inspira and local schools, we are innovating the way we fight hunger in South Jersey, providing convenient on-site food assistance for school-aged children and their families and addressing chronic medical conditions with nutritious food as a prescription for good health,” Community FoodBank president and CEO Carlos M. Rodriguez said.
The farmacies — at Inspira health clinics in Bridgeton and Woodbury — are designed to take this concept even further; they will be open more than one day a month for free food and nutrition counseling for all families.
Individuals can return throughout the year to get groceries and professional guidance, without scheduling additional medical appointments, officials said; it is not clear what Inspira plans to do in coming years, but DiAngelo said the system is committed to helping the community it serves.
Eligible patients will be identified during the traditional clinical screening process at the start of their medical appointment, Inspira said. In addition to the usual questions about where it hurts and for how long, clinicians will ask about food insecurity. (They already ask about drug and alcohol use.) Those who express concerns about hunger will be referred to the farmacy after their appointment.
“In the past, food insecurity is not something we would discuss in depth with people coming into our emergency room,” DiAngelo said. “Now that’s part of the conversation.”
Kohli said the goal — in addition to improving the health of the individual patient — is to help families create healthy habits that last a lifetime. For this reason, they are working hard to ensure the food selection and demonstration recipes chosen are culturally relevant to the largely Hispanic community.
The program will track the number of patients and families served and the amount of food distributed, officials said, and other metrics may be added in the future. “What we’re really doing is pushing to create generational change,” Kohli explained. “Sometimes, they’ve never really thought of food as medicine.”