Hospital – Food Bank Partnerships: A Recipe for Community Health

by Susan Bridle-Fitzpatrick, PhD Senior Researcher, Health Care Without Harm

Hospitals and health systems understand that food security is an important determinant of health. Food insecurity is associated with a higher risk of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. Food insecurity is also associated with poorer management of diet-sensitive health conditions and greater healthcare costs, including avoidable emergency department visits. There is growing interest by hospitals and health systems in identifying and addressing patients’ social determinants of health—particularly food insecurity and lack of access to fresh, healthy foods.

How hospitals can help: Community benefit. Nonprofit hospitals provide community benefit programs to maintain their tax-exempt status. Recent regulatory changes encourage greater investment in social determinants of health by requiring nonprofit hospitals to assess community health needs and implement strategies to address priority needs. Community benefit investments are one pathway for hospitals to improve healthy food access and strengthen the food system.

Healthy food playbook. Inspired by hospitals’ growing commitment to respond to community health needs, Health Care Without Harm carried out a national research and resource development project to support community benefit professionals and community partners in promoting healthy food access and healthier food environments. Through our national survey, we found:

  • 71% of respondents’ community health needs assessments (CHNAs) identified obesity as a health need
  • 13% of CHNAs identified food access as a health need
  • The majority of community benefit interventions addressing obesity and diet-related health conditions center around nutrition education and exercise promotion

Hospitals can do more to support healthy eating in their communities. Health professionals may encourage patients to eat five servings of vegetables and fruits each day, but when families are struggling with food insecurity, it will be difficult to adhere to those recommendations. With that in mind, Health Care Without Harm created the “Delivering community benefit: Healthy food playbook” to present information and tools to address food- and diet-related health needs at several stages in the community health engagement process.

Hospital-food bank partnerships – opportunities for community benefit support. As hospitals increasingly screen patients for food insecurity and direct food insecure individuals to emergency food resources, they are helping to tackle hunger as a health issue—but they are also increasing the demands placed on community-based food assistance providers. We believe that hospitals should bolster food banks and pantries in their critical role in addressing food insecurity, and particularly their efforts to provide fresh, healthy, and medically appropriate food for their clients.

The Healthy Roots Collaborative in Vermont gleaned over 10,600 pounds of produce at ten farms, to distribute to 18 area food pantries and meal programs (Northwestern Medical Center, 2016).

Hospitals can provide community benefit support to food banks in numerous ways, including:

  • Hosting food pantries onsite at the hospital
  • Conducing health screenings and offering diet and nutrition education at community pantry sites
  • Helping establish nutrition standards and medically tailored food boxes
  • Providing grant support to increase food bank capacity, such as to purchase refrigerators to store and distribute fresh food or vans for mobile food pantries
  • Helping food banks partner with local farmers to increase the supply of fresh, healthy, local food for families in need and also support local farmers.

Next steps for food banks

  1. Review the Playbook resource “Banking on healthy food” for examples of hospital-food bank partnerships to promote healthy food access
  2. Participate in the community health needs assessment in your community. That may involve serving on the hospital’s CHNA steering committee, participating in a key informant interview, providing input into survey questions, or hosting focus groups. This can contribute to food access and the needs of the most vulnerable populations being identified and prioritized in the CHNA, and build or deepen relationships with healthcare facilities that can lead to hospital support for hunger relief and food bank programs.

Visit Healthy Food in Health Care to learn how we work with our large network of hospitals across the United States to advance the development of a healthy and sustainable food system.

Susan Bridle-Fitzpatrick, PhD, is the Senior Researcher for the national Healthy Food in Health Care program at the global non-profit organization Health Care Without Harm. This program partners with Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth’s large network of hospitals across the United States to advance the development of a healthy and sustainable food system. She is also adjunct faculty at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, where she teaches courses on global food and nutrition security and the social determinants of health.