Health Care Providers Can be Effective/Powerful Partners in the Fight Against Hunger

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Food Bank CEO Lisa Scales. Photo by Jason CohnBy Lisa Scales

At any function with large attendance, such as a medical or professional conference or even a social event, it’s likely one in seven people attending are facing hunger.

Hunger is a very real problem in every community, but it is also a hidden problem.

“People have all kinds of judgments about food assistance. They don’t know all the facts, that people receiving food assistance cycle on and off,” says Lisa Scales, CEO of Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Scales knows clients who are healthcare providers, employed full-time, who need food assistance.

One client in particular is a nurse in Pittsburgh. Her son died in a car accident and she took over caring for her young granddaughter. Though she was working full-time, she had to make tough financial choices like paying for light and gas versus buying insulin to treat her diabetes. Often times she could only purchase groceries after paying rent and childcare.

“Even people working full time don’t necessarily get the food they need, considering family size,” explains Scales.

Scales said she firmly believes hunger is a solvable problem and that partnering with healthcare providers in our region is a major part of the solution.

Across the nation, healthcare providers are already working to identify individuals suffering food insecurity and what can be done to help them. As part of a study in Oregon, health care providers are now asking patients if they worried their food would run out before there was money to buy more, and if that actually ever happened. Based on patients’ answers and other health information, health care providers can then provide information on resources and referrals for assistance.

Locally, research at the University of Pittsburgh found that at risk populations who were less likely to comply with prescribed medications could minimize the negative impacts with proper diet management.

“The focus of healthcare providers is to ensure people are as healthy as they can be, that’s our work, too,” explains Scales. “The key is finding out how we can work together to make sure our neighbors are food secure. The connection between good health and good nutrition is so close. Healthcare providers do all this work to get the person well, but what happens when the person goes home and they are food insecure?”

The first step, Scales says, is for everyone, including healthcare professionals, to get educated about the problem of hunger. Currently, one in seven people in 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties served by the Food Bank area receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, based on figures from the US Census Bureau and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. That’s more than 330,000 people.

But recent cuts to the SNAP program mean that the most vulnerable members of our community, children and seniors, are facing even tougher challenges to their health. Prior to the November 1, 2013 cuts, SNAP benefits averaged less than $1.50 per person per meal according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Families. The cut to SNAP benefits mean families will have less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

Across the country, this means less food for 22 million children in 2014, 10 million of whom live in deep poverty and 9 million people who are elderly or have a serious disability.

“Healthcare providers who work with children and senior citizens are seeing our most vulnerable constituents,” explains Scales. “These providers are in a position to identify food insecurity and get hungry people help.”

Scales is meeting with leaders in the healthcare community of southwestern Pennsylvania, including those representing the Allegheny County Health Department, physicians, medical societies and nursing professional groups.

“I’d like to see if there are other avenues for involvement, outreach, education, screenings that only healthcare providers can do. One food pantry in the west end of Pittsburgh had a parish nurse checking on people at the once-a-month food distribution. Is there more that we could do like that?” asks Scales. “We’ve done projects with nursing students, but nothing ongoing. I have more of a desire to strengthen that connection and partnerships in terms of ensuring the health of the people we serve and making sure they will be food secure.

“One thing I would ask individual healthcare providers to do is get educated. Know the facts and then take action that works for you. It’s going to be different for everyone. Some will donate, some will volunteer, some will speak out. But this is a critical time and we all must do something.”

Lisa Scales is the CEO for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. For more information, visit http://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org/