Can you imagine a day when healthcare is mostly proactive as opposed to reactive? When everyone has access to the vital conditions for health and wellbeing, the factors that people depend on to reach their full potential?
What does that future look like? How will we know when we’ve achieved that future? What do we need to do to get there?
One way we’ll know that we’ve achieved this future is that nutrition security will be accessible to all and diet-related illnesses will no longer be the leading cause of death in the United States, especially for people of color who are currently at greatest risk.
Getting to that future will take creativity, funding, and determination. The White House’s commitment to ending hunger and increasing healthy eating and physical activity by 2030 is an important goal to work toward. Part of the national strategy entails integrating nutrition and healthcare. Something I work on every day in my role as the Regional Director of Farming and Healthy Lifestyles for the Farm at Trinity Health, one of the nation’s oldest hospital-based farms.
On March 24, 2023, we were pleased to host more than 150 key stakeholders in Ann Arbor, MI for the USDA’s second regional summit on nutrition security and healthcare, Come to the Table. The summit, organized by Promedica and The Root Cause Coalition, builds on the momentum of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. Attendees heard from officials such as Senator Debbie Stabenow, Secretary Xavier Becerra of the Department of Health and Human Services, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak, and Deputy Under Secretary of Food and Nutrition Services Stacy Dean. The unified message attendees heard from those officials was that we have a problem in this country with lack of nutrition security and health, and we must come together to fix it.
The rest of the meeting was set up to share best practices from a set of four groups of panelists, and to give attendees and presenters a chance to have meaningful dialogue.
In one panel, we heard from healthcare representatives about why their health systems choose to invest in nutrition security. What I heard from panelists was that nutrition security is out of reach for many of their patients and this is deeply frustrating because the accumulated impact of poor nutrition makes the job of a healthcare provider exponentially harder. I also heard the commitment of those health systems to creating positive change both within their facilities and out in the communities they serve. Alfreda Rooks, Director of Community Health Services for Michigan Medicine, spoke about their efforts to get healthy food and preventative care embedded in the community with their Project Healthy Schools programs and Ypsilanti Community High School | RAHS Health Centers (umhs-rahs.org).
In another panel, we heard about the various challenges of hunger across the age spectrum. Programs like Connecting Kids to Meals in Ohio takes on the enormous task of feeding children afterschool and in the summers. The organization, which has served 6 million hungry children since 2002, is a needed program, but also highlights the deep and pervasive nature of hunger and nutrition insecurity in our country.
In panel four we heard from various government agencies about a whole government approach to addressing hunger as a health issue.
The panel I moderated saw a lively discussion about how healthcare and the emergency food
system can work to address hunger as a health issue. Our panelists, Markell Miller, Director of Community Food Programs at Food Gatherers, Dawn Opel, Chief Innovation Officer at the Food Bank Council of Michigan, and Matt Habash, President and CEO of the Mid-Ohio Collective, highlighted an ever-growing need for emergency food and that while food banks and pantries are working to provide more and healthier foods, nutrition security cannot be guaranteed through emergency food. As Matt pointed out, “we can’t program our way out of hunger, we, as a society will have to decide to do something about it.” I agree wholeheartedly.
In my work at The Farm at Trinity Health I am honored to both work on addressing the immediate needs of our community through food assistance programming and on a brighter future by investing in sustainable food systems and our local farm economy. A highlight of the summit for me was the opportunity to give attendees a tour of our hospital-based farm.
A few highlights about The Farm at Trinity Health:
- Two locations: Ypsilanti, MI and Pontiac, MI.
- Mission: To grow a healthy community by empowering people through food, education, and relationships.
- Collaborative Farm Share (also known as a Community Supported Agriculture) program. We aggregate produce from 20+ local farms annually. The program generated $300,000 in local farm revenue in 2022 and over $1M in farm revenue since 2015. We distributed 15,460 produce boxes in 2022 to 350 families over the 36-week season. Our Farm Share Assistance program provides free or reduced cost membership to 100+ families/year.
- Produce to Patients: We believe that food is medicine and make it easy for patients and healthcare workers to have access to produce by donating 15,554 pounds of produce to 22,339 patients and healthcare workers in 2022.
- Education: Access to healthy food is only the first step toward better health outcomes. People must also know what to do with it. Our education programs include field trips, summer camp, and cooking classes.
- Horticultural Therapy: physical, occupational, and behavioral health therapies offered at our handicap accessible hoop house.
To wrap up, my key takeaway from the March 24th meeting was that while great work is happening across the Midwest region and beyond, there is more to be done. We as a society must decide to invest in creating the vital conditions for all including guaranteeing access to healthy food, investing in the health of our planet, and creating systems that will generate positive outcomes for all.
It is up to all of us to advocate for this positive future. Contact your elected officials, make sure you’re registered to vote, and support programs in your communities that are doing the hard work of meeting the needs of people today.