Access to Nutritious Foods is Vital to Improving Patients’ Health

It’s hard for me to believe that I have now been practicing medicine for twenty years. Every day has been a gift …It has been and continues to be an honor to be a part of my patients’ lives.

I serve patients in a community health center in Redwood City, where many struggle to manage their chronic diseases in the face of financial insecurity that often requires them to work multiple low-paying jobs. As their primary care provider, I thought my role was to educate and partner with my patients on their continued journey of well-being. I would draw simple diagrams explaining what high blood pressure and high blood sugar can do to the body. It took me nearly two decades of practicing medicine before I realized that many of my patients lacked access to the very foods I was advising them to eat.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, our clinic decided to screen everyone for food insecurity. We found that close to 20 percent of patients who came through our doors worried about having enough food to eat. When we delved deeper, we found that even more did not have access to the nutritious foods that we often instructed them to eat. I’ll never forget when my patient, whom I had known for 8 years, told me that he felt ashamed to admit that he did not have enough food for himself and his family. I was disappointed that I did not think to ask and understand what his circumstances were. I missed what was right in front of me. Despite having the theoretical understanding that nutrition is so foundational to health and wellness, I was not doing enough to identify and address one of the root causes of chronic disease that many of my patients faced. I became passionate about finding strategies to address food insecurity. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted disparities in food access as many in our local communities lost their sources of income. Something had to be done.

Our health system made it a high priority to screen patients for food insecurity and connect those who were food insecure to resources in as real time as possible. Every Monday, we kept large boxes of food to hand to people during clinic visits; these boxes were gone within the hour because the demand was so great. We deployed a team of social workers to join patients and providers during clinic visits; they helped to enroll patients in CalFresh and, if needed, helped have groceries delivered to their homes. We partnered with Second Harvest Food Bank to provide nutrient dense food options.

We still have a long way to go, but we have made great initial strides tackling food insecurity in our community. We are hoping to get a better sense of what types of healthy foods our patients like to eat. Our health system is hoping to learn how our patients prepare their food: do they have regular access to stoves and ovens? Or do they primarily reheat prepared foods? Equipped with this added knowledge, we hope to partner with community organizations so that patients get nutritious foods they love in a way that can be prepared at home on a regular basis.

In December 2022, we received the Quality Leaders Award for innovation from the California Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems. Here's a short video that our county health systems put together to share our work. This collaborative effort connecting patients to much needed nutritional resources has been the highlight of my career.

Access to Nutritious Foods is Vital to Improving Patients’ Health

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