What do food deserts, poverty, and lack of transportation all have in common? They can prevent individuals and communities from eating a healthy diet — ultimately jeopardizing good health and well-being. A major initiative led by Inspira Health, in partnership with local schools and food banks, is taking aim at these social determinants of health that have negatively impacted families in our region for decades.
Through the triennial Community Health Needs Assessment, access to healthy foods has been identified as a major challenge for thousands of residents in Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties. In 2019, 13% of Cumberland County households experienced food insecurity. The rate in Gloucester was 9.2%. Salem County residents travel, on average, the furthest for their food than residents of any other county in New Jersey. Obesity rates in Cumberland and Salem counties are among the highest in the state.
“To truly live our mission of improving the lives of all we serve, we must think and reach beyond the walls of our facilities,” said John DiAngelo, president and CEO of Inspira Health. “Partnering with like-minded organizations, who share our commitment to building healthier communities, is essential if we want to effectively address the social determinants of health that challenge so many of our neighbors.”
Inspira is partnering with the Food Bank of South Jersey, Community FoodBank of New Jersey, the Gloria Sabater Elementary School and Casimer Dallago Early Childhood Center in Vineland, the Millville Child Family Center, and the Woodbury Junior-Senior High School to provide monthly school-based food pantries.
The goal is to provide families who are food insecure with a month’s worth of nutritious food and access to nutrition counseling at a convenient location: the local school that their children attend. Inspira will also conduct presentations at the schools to promote wellness and teach fun ways for students to add physical activity to their daily routines. Volunteers from Inspira Health and the Inspira Foundation provide on-site support to the food pantries.
“Healthy schools, healthy families” has become the mantra for the school-based pantries, which are expected to provide ongoing access to healthy food for more than 1,800 children and their families during the 2019–2020 school year.
Inspira’s collaboration with the Food Bank of South Jersey and the Community FoodBank of New Jersey will allow them to open what they call “food farmacies” at their health centers in Bridgeton and Woodbury. The premise is simple: good health starts with great food.
Inspira staff will identify patients who face food insecurity and will connect them with one of the two food farmacies. There, patients will meet with an Inspira registered dietitian and receive nutritious food that is appropriate for any medical conditions they might have. Regularly scheduled meetings with the dietitian will be arranged and nutritious food will be provided at each meeting for up to one year.
“While delivering food is central to the Community FoodBank of New Jersey’s mission, so is providing resources to help our neighbors in need maintain healthy and positive lifestyles,” said Carlos M. Rodriguez, president & CEO of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey. “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.”
Nutrition education and counseling are an integral component of the food farmacies. It allows for a personalized approach to improving the nutrition and health of patients. Regular visits with a dietitian, over the course of a year, will also help food farmacy customers develop healthy eating habits.
“A sufficient supply of nutritious food is critically important for healing and recovery,” said Alka Kohli, M.D., executive vice president and chief clinical and population health officer for Inspira Health. “And for patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes or heart failure, access to foods that will help them manage their conditions can mean the difference between feeling well and a trip to the emergency [room].”
Inspira will monitor the health of food farmacy customers to gauge the impact of the initiative and to provide guidance when considering changes or expansion of the program. The stated goal of the food farmacy program is to help patients lead healthier lives and to reduce unscheduled and emergency medical care.