As Water is Life, So Food is Medicine: Second Harvest Partners with Health Care Providers

Kristen Williamson oversees Food Rx for Second Harvest Heartland

Food is the first medicine — that’s a basic part of how indigenous peoples understand the world. The idea is being embraced by Second Harvest Heartland as it looks at the profound connections between good nutrition and healing for those with acute or chronic health conditions.

Second Harvest Heartland began its Food Rx program in 2016. It was inspired after a client review in southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin found a high prevalence of people with hypertension and diabetes. Kristen Williamson, Second Harvest’s Project Coordinator for Food Rx, said it began discussions about creating partnerships between health care providers and community organizations such as food banks to address access to nutritious food.

These issues are hitting the national spotlight. For instance, an Oct. 2 Time Magazine piece headlined: Why Paying for Nutrition Saves Money on Health Care said:

The foods we eat play a central role in our health. The epidemics of our time—obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes—are intimately tied to unhealthy patterns of eating. But eating healthy is also expensive, making it particularly challenging for the 12% of US households who have to worry whether they can afford enough food each month.

For the 41 million Americans living in these households, a common coping strategy is to purchase cheaper, less healthy foods in an effort to make their food budgets last longer. Over time, however, these unhealthy dietary patterns can have a significant impact on a person’s health. Children living in food-insecure homes suffer two to four times as many health problems and are less likely to reach their academic potential.

Example of a food box.

Second Harvest got grants to do a couple of nutrition-related pilot projects. It did one with CentraCare Family Health Center in St. Cloud. That one has wrapped up; Second Harvest is still analyzing the data. A second pilot will run through the end of the year with Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

Here’s how Second Harvest’s website explains the Food Rx pilot at CentraCare:

… patients with diabetes and cardiovascular disease pick up chronic disease food boxes once a month at the clinic. Patients also receive a Coborn’s gift certificate for fresh produce every month. The food in the boxes varies by quarter, disease, and by cultural diet preferences. In addition, patients meet with clinic staff for chronic disease education every few months as part of the program, and receive healthy recipes every month that coincide with the ingredients in the box.

“It’s not only food access but a teaching tool,” Williamson said.

The food box for diabetes includes vegetables canned in no-salt solution, canned fruit packed in juice, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and protein such as tuna, chicken, and dried beans.

Second Harvest staff attended a Dream of Wild Health diabetes training, and it informed their thinking, Williamson said. (Dream of Wild Health’s mission is: “to restore health and well-being in the Native community by recovering knowledge of and access to healthy Indigenous foods, medicines and lifeways.” Williamson had a Dream of Wild Health cookbook in her office.)

Second Harvest has developed specialty food boxes for the Hispanic and Somali communities. For instance, because many Somalis, particularly older Somalis, only eat halal meat, the Somali boxs include protein alternatives, such as more beans and lentils.

Williamson said the initiative would like to develop a specialty Native American food box, too.

A big challenge for all of this work is funding. Second Harvest has run Food Rx on short-term grants. Staff hopes data from the pilot projects will show that providing nutritious food to people with chronic and acute health care problems will their improve health — and reduce long-term health care costs. That kind of data might get health insurers and other health providers on board so Second Harvest doesn’t have to cover all the costs.

The project is trying different models. For instance in the St. Cloud pilot, patients picked up food at the clinic, but a 30-pound box was a lot to carry for some people. In the HCMC pilot, the food is home delivered. That adds cost.

Second Harvest also is working with Park Nicollet on screening patients with acute health care needs for food insecurity. Those who are food insecure get a 12-pound box to fill immediate needs until they can be connected with other resources.

A quick Internet search found a number of articles in the past year on related topics. For instance, this Sept. 13 Chicago Tribune opinion piece headlined, Want to Fix America’s Health Care System? First, Focus on Food, was written by Dariush Mozaffarian, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University, it said:

As a cardiologist and public health scientist, I have studied nutrition science and policy for 20 years. Poor diet is not just about individual choice, but about the systems that make eating poorly the default for most Americans.

If we want to cut down on disease and achieve meaningful health care reform, we should make it a top nonpartisan priority to address our nation’s nutrition crisis.

This problem is bigger than food banks and food shelves. But stay tuned for more on Second Harvest Heartland’s local efforts to address these issues.

Williamson can be reached at:

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