Partnering to Address Food Access: A Healthcare Innovation Strategy

by Jorja Barton Health Innovations Coordinator, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank

When Central Pennsylvania Food Bank adopted its original Bold Goal Strategic Plan in 2015, a number of fellow Feeding America network food banks were working in experimental partnerships with healthcare providers and insurers. Recognizing significant potential in this work, our Food Bank made a provision in our 2015 Plan to advance pilot-level work already underway with local healthcare organizations. Fast-forward to 2018, and we continue to develop existing and create new healthcare partnerships to provide healthy food assistance to patients that are both food insecure and facing significant diet-related conditions. As we complete our 2018 Strategic Plan Refresh, our board and leadership recognize the need to prioritize the most promising and sustainable of our healthcare innovation endeavors. Fortunately, these endeavors have attracted significant healthcare funding and we expect this trend to grow considerably.

The Central Pennsylvania Food Bank is committed to expanding our healthcare innovation strategy as funding streams develop. We expect substantial growth within the next two to three years that we have established CPFB’s Healthcare Innovation work under a standalone department. We cannot currently predict the level of staffing that will be required in coming years, but we are confident that potential savings from reduced healthcare expenditures will attract the funding required to provide healthy food assistance services under such agreements.

In 2016, we were approached by Geisinger Health, one of the largest healthcare systems in our service area, to explore opportunities for partnership to address the food access needs of patients. Specifically, Geisinger Health sought to develop a Fresh Food Farmacy™, an on-site food pantry providing healthy food to patients who are identified as food insecure. Over the last two years, this program has grown from serving six food-insecure, low-income diabetic clinic patients to more than 120 low-income households that have at least one family member who is diabetic. The program has had tremendous success with 100% of patients experiencing a reduction in Hemoglobin A1c levels and weight. This success demonstrates the clinical health improvements that can result from improved diet quality when healthcare community-based organizations work closely together.

The Fresh Food Farmacy™ will expand from one location in Shamokin, PA to two additional sites by the end of 2018. In addition, on July 11th, Geisinger implemented food insecurity screenings throughout their system (PA and New Jersey), identifying food-insecure patients and referring them to the Food Bank’s SNAP helpline and pantry system as well as other regional food bank resources. An average of 5-10 patients are referred to our SNAP team per day, increasing our outreach particularly in more rural locations of our service area. The other takeaway is that state legislators, the Department of Health and insurers are extremely interested in this program from a cost savings perspective.

Currently, additional healthcare partners and insurers are exploring similar opportunities with us, including the PA American Academy of Pediatrics, Penn State Health, UPMC/Pinnacle, Highmark and Capital Blue Cross. We are enthusiastic about these partnerships that will help the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank achieve our Bold Goal of providing enough nutritious food to everyone struggling with hunger in each of the 27 counties we serve by 2025.

Jorja Barton is the Health Innovations Coordinator at Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and has served as the Director of Agency Relations of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank from 1999 to 2017 prior to a short retirement. Jorja’s life has been intertwined with the food industry for more than 40 years. Beginning at Mansfield University, Jorja has developed a cooking curriculum for patients at Harrisburg State Hospital, sold tractors for a company in Czech Republic and formerly owned Roxy’s Café in downtown Harrisburg. She currently serves on the Board and Executive Committee of the PA Nutrition Education Network, the Penn State Health Community Health Needs Assessment Team, and multiple county health coalitions.