There's a new question that anti-hunger advocates want doctors and nurses to ask patients: Do you have enough food?
Public health officials say the answer often is "not really." So clinics and hospitals have begun stocking their own food pantries in recent years.
One of the latest additions is Connectus Health, a federally funded clinic in Nashville, Tenn. This month, the rear of LaShika Taylor's office transformed into a community cupboard.
"It's a lot of nonperishables right now, just because we're just starting out," she says, but the clinic is working on refrigeration.
It's not that patients are starving, Connectus co-director Suzanne Hurley says. It's that they may have a lot of food one day and none the next. That's no way to manage a disease like diabetes, she says.
"I can prescribe medications all day, but if they can't do the other piece — which is a decent diet and just knowing they're not going to have to miss meals," she says, "medications have to be managed around all of those things."
Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, a local food bank, is encouraging more health care providers to consider on-site pantries. The food bank also wants every patient — not just those suspected of being low income — asked about their food situation.
"We're really pushing for universal screening, so you're not picking who you're asking that question to. The doctor already asks you really personal questions, and we don't think twice about it," says Caroline Pullen, Second Harvest's nutrition manager. "I think people have always been scared to ask this question because they didn't really have the resources of where to send them."
"Food insecurity," as it's known, has become a particular concern among seniors. The anti-hunger group Feeding America found that more than 5 million older Americans don't have enough food to lead a healthy life — a figure that has doubled in the last two decades.
Trudy Hoffman now gets free groceries at her monthly visits to Nashville General Hospital.
"They just asked me, did I want a bag of food to carry home?" she recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah.' "
The city-funded hospital started its pantry just for cancer patients in recent years but opened it to all patients this year and received a $100,000 grant in October to fund its expansion.
Organizers call it a "food pharmacy," following the lead of places like Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, with patients getting a "prescription" for what to pick up. Some shelves have high-calorie superfoods for cancer patients to keep their weight up. Others have low-sugar staples for people with diabetes or low-sodium items for patients with hypertension.
Vernon Rose, who oversees the Nashville General Hospital Foundation, says no one is surprised to see dozens of patients using the pantry each day.
"Because when you're in a place like ours, where 40% of the folks can't even afford their health care, you can imagine the choices they're making," she says — such as deciding whether to pay for food or pharmaceuticals.
The pantry operates mostly with grant funding. So Rose says the biggest challenge now is keeping it fully stocked with important but more expensive items like fresh produce and spices, which can be used to help patients keep some flavor while reducing salt in their diet.
This story is part of NPR's reporting partnership with WPLN and Kaiser Health News.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right. When you go to the doctor for routine care, often, the physician or the nurse will ask other questions, right? Do you have guns at home, is one of them, or, have you been feeling depressed? There's a new question that hunger advocates have been pushing. Do you have enough food? Since the answer is so often, not really, clinics and hospitals have started stocking their own food pantries. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: LaShika Taylor is the administrative assistant at Connectus Health, a federally funded clinic in Nashville, and this month, the back of her office transformed into a community cupboard.
LASHIKA TAYLOR: Peanut butter, greens, oatmeal...
FARMER: Taylor now doubles as pantry manager. It's mostly non-perishables at the moment. Clinic co-director Suzanne Hurley says it's not that patients are starving. It's that they may have a lot of food one day and none the next. That's no way to manage a disease like diabetes.
SUZANNE HURLEY: I can prescribe medications all day, but if they can't do the other piece - which is a decent diet, you know, just knowing that they're not going to have to miss meals and things like that - because medications have to be managed around all of those things.
FARMER: Food insecurity, as it's known, has become a particular concern among seniors. The anti-hunger group Feeding America found more than 5 million older Americans don't have enough food to lead a healthy life, a figure that has doubled in the last two decades. And in response, food banks are increasingly meeting seniors where they get their health care. Hospitals from Utah to Massachusetts are sending patients home with food. At Nashville General Hospital, Trudy Hoffman receives monthly infusions and now groceries.
TRUDY HOFFMAN: They just asked me did I want a bag of food carry home one day, and I said, yeah.
FARMER: The public hospital calls its pantry a food pharmacy because cancer patients might pick up high-calorie superfoods to keep their weight up. Hypertension patients choose from shelves with low-sodium staples. Vernon Rose, who oversees the hospital's charitable foundation, says no one is surprised to see dozens of patients using the pantry each day.
VERNON ROSE: Because when you're in a place like ours where 40% of the folks can't even afford their health care, you can imagine the choice they're making about food, pharmaceuticals. I need to get to work. I got to pay for this bus ticket at the expense of something else.
FARMER: These pantries operate mostly with private grant funding, so Rose says the biggest challenge now is keeping them fully stocked with important but more expensive items like fresh produce. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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