Gleaners pilots programs to prove return on investment of ending hunger

There are just under 1.5 million “food insecure” people in Michigan, or about 15 percent of the state’s population, according to Feeding America, a Chicago-based national association for food banks and food rescues. More than half of those, or 672,780, were in southeast Michigan (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties).

Through its annual Map the Meal Gap project, Feeding America estimates it would take $739.2 million to feed all of Michigan’s food insecure people.

Brisson and his senior management team began brainstorming about what it would take to close the gap. They landed on a conversation about who, besides the people getting food, could benefit from providing it to them.

Health care and education were the first two things that came up. Research has shown that children can’t learn when they’re hungry. And adequate nutritional food can stave off many health concerns, lowering the incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes and the long-term treatment associated with them.

By extension, in the area of health care, Gleaners believes feeding the hungry can also help reduce hospital stays and admissions and improve chronic disease treatment. The costs associated with providing food are much lower than those associated with providing health care, Brisson said.

If someone needs a low-sodium, high produce diet but the only place they can shop is a nearby gas station, that may impede their ability to get healthy again, he said.

“We know how to get food to people. If we partner with (health care) around these issues … we can help them drive their costs down to the patients who need it, who are sort of Gleaners’ consumers.”

A pilot in development with Henry Ford could prove that.

“We already know the benefits of healthy eating but access to enough food — and the right nutrition — continues to be a challenge for so many people,” said Susan Hawkins, senior vice president, population health for Henry Ford.

“We believe a program like this has the potential to make a significant impact on our patients’ health and healing, and having a partner like Gleaners for this program is an ideal fit.”

Henry Ford plans to launch the pilot program at several ambulatory centers beginning sometime this fall, Hawkins said. Patients who meet certain criteria will be offered an “emergency kit” of nonperishable food right at the medical center and will receive additional food shipments over the next six months.

The program will be backed by an approved study in partnership with Henry Ford’s Public Health Sciences department. The study will examine things like the average readmission rate, frequency of emergency department use, and certain biomarkers like blood pressure and body mass index, she said.

“We are actively pursuing a funding source within our own health system and hope to finalize that within the next few weeks,” Hawkins said.

The program builds on another initiative Henry Ford has participated in since 2013 to get more healthy food to patients, the Fresh Prescription Program. As part of this program, Henry Ford dietitians meet with patients referred by their primary care doctors, give them a prescription to “eat more fruits and vegetables,” and help them set healthy eating goals. Patients “fill” their prescriptions at a participating farm stand or market and also receive nutrition counseling, cooking demonstrations and other educational support focused on healthy eating changes. That program’s partners include Eastern Market Corp., Detroit Food Policy Council, Community Health and Social Services Center Inc., Covenant Community Care, Mercy Primary Care Center and others.

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