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Food as Medicine | How Good Shepherd Food Bank is helping fill “prescriptions” for healthy food

Diet fads come and go but if there’s one piece of nutritional wisdom that’s truly stood the test of time it’s “you are what you eat.”

Over the last decade, we at Good Shepherd Food Bank have embraced this wisdom with both arms. In 2016, we set a bold goal of ensuring that all Mainers have the food they need to thrive, when and where they need it, by 2025. To fulfill the “food they need to thrive” portion of this goal, we’ve tightened up our quality standards and focused on sourcing and distributing high-quality, nutritious food including millions of pounds of fresh produce.

In recent years, we’ve been making exciting progress on the second part of our goal of making this healthier food available to our neighbors in need “when and where they need it”. We’ve hired a team of Community Resource Representatives like Kai Loundon to support our network of over 400 food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other food assistance programs. This important work has made more nutritious food available to people who seek it out, but what about the people who are experiencing health problems from a poor diet but have not reached out for help?

To solve this issue, we’re taking the concept of “food as medicine” to doctors’ offices, hospitals, emergency rooms and walk-in clinics all over the state. St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bangor is one of these facilities and we recently spoke with Mia Dubois, Director of Care Continuum and System Integration, to learn how this program is working for them.

In 2018, St. Joseph’s Hospital began a two-pronged approach to providing food as medicine. The first step was placing a food cart directly in the lobby of the hospital and stocking it with fresh fruits and vegetables that are free for the taking. “There was some initial concern about people coming in just for the food,” Mia explained. “That wasn’t the case at all. In fact, many people who need this food are reluctant to take it for fear of taking it from someone else who needs it more.”

Step Two of St. Joseph’s plan was to implement a screening process to identify how many of their patients are food insecure. Since January 1, 2018, St. Joseph’s has screened over 3,700 patients. Of these patients, 475 were referred to local food pantries and 455 were sent home with an emergency supply of 2-3 days’ worth of food. “By making food insecurity questions part of the usual wellness conversation between doctor and patient, we’re able to provide healthy food to people in need who never would have sought help on their own,” Mia said.

Between the food cart in the lobby and the emergency supplies they’ve handed out, St. Joseph’s Hospital distributed over 15,000 pounds of food in the last fifteen months of their Food as Medicine program. Best of all, 10,000 pounds of this food was fresh produce – apples, potatoes, carrots, and squash – acquired through our Mainers Feeding Mainers program.

In addition to the satisfaction of helping people we may not have reached without this partnership, we’ve learned from St. Joseph’s Hospital that 72 percent of their food-insecure patients are chronically ill. According to Mia Dubois, most of these patients are suffering from respiratory illnesses such as COPD. The inhalers that are typically recommended to treat these diseases cost hundreds of dollars per month. For senior citizen patients on fixed incomes or low income patients struggling to get by, this situation puts them in the position of having to decide between heating their homes and paying their rent or buying food and medication. By providing these patients with some of the nutritious food they need for better health, our hope is that a year from now, we see a drop in the number of readmissions as patients are able to afford the medications they need and take better overall care of themselves.

In addition to providing food, St. Joseph’s Hospital offers counseling to all food-insecure patients to help them stretch their income, find food resources in the community, and secure assistance with their home heating oil purchases. This work inspired the team at St. Joe’s to secure a separate grant so they could purchase frozen meals from the Eastern Area Agency on Aging that could be given to post-surgical patients. Thanks to this program, these patients are sent home with five frozen meals in a thermal bag donated by Hannaford Supermarkets to make their transition easier.

To ensure all of this good work can continue, Good Shepherd Food Bank has provided a $5,500 grant to St. Joseph’s Hospital. Supporting our partners financially is another way that we fulfill our mission and yet another reason why our need for monetary donations is constant.

As Mia sums up: “We just want to be sure that every patient has the same access and opportunity to take care of themselves and that patients dealing with chronic illness don’t have to choose between food and medicine.”