Food as Medicine

Mediaon January 10th, 2018Comments Off on Food as Medicine

Joshua is a six-year-old first grader. He loves playing with Legos and trains.  He also loves basketball and baseball and likes to pretend to be a soldier. Stephanie Coffey, the Social Worker at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Hopple Street Neighborhood Health Center received a troubling message from Joshua’s school a few weeks ago asking for help.  His teachers had come to the decision that they were not going to be able to keep Joshua in school much longer due to severe behavioral issues. Not having the resources to provide counseling or therapy, the school was seeking assistance from the hospital.

Stephanie called the school to get further details. A conversation with Joshua’s teachers revealed that the main issue was that he became difficult to handle around 10:30 am every day. He became irritable, disruptive and sometimes violent. Although the incidents were predictable, the teachers did not know how to control them. Stephanie started investigating Joshua’s behavior. She studied his daily routine and schedule. It was a private school that did not offer free breakfast.  In that impoverished neighborhood, it was highly likely that Josh came to school hungry. And as a six-year-old, he probably did not know how to handle hunger, other than to act out. Stephanie felt that she may have stumbled on the root of the issue.

Stephanie’s years of experience dealing with children facing food insecurity had taught her that lack of adequate nutrition could lead to serious academic and behavioral issues. This seemed very likely in Joshua’s case.  Following further discussion with her colleagues at the clinic, Stephanie came up with a plan. They sent Joshua’s mom “snack packs” they had received from the Freestore Foodbank.  Josh started to get snacks mid-morning every day. Miraculously, the meltdowns disappeared. “In this instance, food took the place of medication,” comments Dr. Mary Carol Burkhardt, Medical Director of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Hopple Street Neighborhood Health Center. “The problem of childhood hunger is far more prevalent than it should be. And that is often the most common issue we address.”

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Hopple Street clinic is located in a food desert. In addition to the lack of direct access to fresh, nutritious food, the neighborhood boasts a high rate of unemployment and alarming infant mortality numbers. 70% of the patients who come to the clinic seek help for social issues such as malnourishment, domestic violence, abuse or neglect in addition to medical conditions. The medical staff at the clinic struggled for many years with the issue of food insecurity among patients. “It made us feel helpless to know that our patients struggled due to a lack of nutritious food. Not being able to help in a meaningful manner was frustrating and heartbreaking,” says Dr. Burkhardt.

This crisis was resolved in July 2017, with the help of the Bob Edwards Feed A Child Fund and the Freestore Foodbank. The hospital was able to start a pantry called the Rubber Duck Family Market in a tiny room within the Hopple Street Clinic. Cincinnati Children’s Hospital already had a preexisting relationship with the Freestore Foodbank through the KIND (Keeping Infants Nourished and Developing) program which makes formula available to children in food insecure families. The Rubber Duck Market took this relationship a step further. The pantry carries shelf-stable items such as pasta, soups, chili, peanut butter, cereal, etc. in addition to formula and diapers.

Stephanie requires every patient she meets with to complete a questionnaire called a “social screener”. The first two questions of the screener address the issue of food insecurity.  “It can be embarrassing or awkward for a patient to admit to food insecurity. However, I do it with kindness and gentleness, always reassuring them that I am here to help and not to pry. And most often, they will tell me if there is a problem,” Stephanie says.  She then offers them options including access to the little pantry that is located at the clinic. “Usually food helps to break down barriers. And they accept me as a friend and one who can help them.”

In addition to the Rubber Duck Market, the Freestore Foodbank operates a mobile pantry for fresh produce at the clinic every other week offering a wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, bread and baked goods to patients and local residents. “The clinic is located in a food desert. So the “produce mobile” hosted by the Freestore Foodbank offers a wonderful solution that improves access to fresh produce for the local residents as well as patients of the clinic,” Ann Viancourt, Child Hunger Prevention Coordinator at the Freestore Foodbank comments.

The Rubber Duck Family Market is the one of the first ones of its kind in the United States to be located within a medical facility. “The success and popularity of the pantry has opened our eyes to what can be accomplished if we continue to partner with the Freestore Foodbank and address some of the underlying issues around nutrition as well while providing medical help,” states Dr. Burkhardt.  Cincinnati Children’s Hospital is actively considering the possibility of implementing similar facilities in other clinics as well.

One in five children in the tristate region struggle with food insecurity, which means that they do not know where their next meal will come from. To learn more about the Freestore Foodbank’s efforts to fight childhood hunger click here.