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HHS Secretary comes to Northeast Ohio for takeaways on improving food access

 Emilia Sykes, Xavier Becerra, and Shontel Brown participate in panel at Akron Children's
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
The U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra (center) listens to a panelist during a discussion about food insecurity, alongside U.S. Rep. Emilia Strong Sykes (left) and Rep. Shontel Brown (right.) The panel was held at Akron Children's Hospital on July 6, 2023.

An estimated one in eight Ohioans are facing food insecurity. With rising food costs and the elimination of pandemic-related emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, more Northeast Ohio residents are struggling to put food on the table.

Meanwhile, local health care providers are trying to ramp up education to patients about the importance of healthy eating habits in preventing poor health outcomes such as diabetes, obesity and hypertension.

As more nutritious food options can sometimes be more expensive, local lawmakers and health officials are looking for ways to help.

That was the focus of a panel discussion held at Akron Children’s Hospital Thursday featuring the U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services (HHS) Xavier Becerra, alongside Northeast Ohio’s Congressional Representatives Emilia Strong Sykes, who represents Akron and parts of Canton, and Shontel Brown, whose district includes Cleveland.

“We’re trying to move away from this system of healthcare that’s based on curing illness, and one that actually promotes wellness,” Becerra said. “If we can get to a wellness care system, we know we’re going to be not only creating healthier families, but a healthier economy for the United States of America.”

Becerra’s department is eager to support health systems to create initiatives focused on food access, he added.

“We have to start treating food as what it really is: it’s medicine. And every time you take your family to visit a doctor, I hope your doctor is saying not just that you need this particular drug or medicine, but also, you need a few more fruits or vegetables; get some more grains in your diet,” Becerra added. “We want to make sure that the $1.7 trillion that we at HHS are responsible for gets spent the right way, and that’s to keep Americans healthy.”

Sykes and Brown invited Becerra to tour several Northeast Ohio hospitals Thursday, including Akron Children’s and MetroHealth Medical Center.

During his visit to Akron Children’s, Becerra heard from hospital officials and local nonprofit officials about food insecurity in the region.

Since emergency SNAP benefits ended earlier this year, Akron hospitals have seen a significant increase in patients using Food Farmacy, their in-house food pantry, health officials told Becerra during the panel.

The pantries, which are operated in collaboration with the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, offer fresh produce and frozen foods to patients who qualify based on their household size and income level. The pantries are located at Akron Children’s, Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital, and Summa Health Systems.

Sykes led the charge in securing $1 million in Ohio Department of Medicaid funding to create the Food Farmacy program last year. Since then, nearly 10,700 people have participated and more than 38,000 meals have been provided, according to statistics provided by the hospitals.

“This is a pilot program, and so now we need to expand it,” Sykes said. “Every child, every family deserves the opportunity to be food secure and lead healthy, happy lives.”

Shirley Brown, a volunteer at the Food Farmacy food pantry, goes through fresh produce that was recently picked from the hospital's vegetable garden on July 6, 2023.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Shirley Brown, a volunteer at the Food Farmacy food pantry, goes through fresh produce that was recently picked from the hospital's vegetable garden on July 6, 2023.

In addition to expanding Food Farmacy locally, she’d also like to work with her congressional colleagues to replicate the program in other states, Sykes added.

Several officials at the roundtable discussion encouraged lawmakers to consider expanding SNAP benefits.

Brown, who is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, is hoping to work on this, she said.

“It’ll be a battle to retain SNAP and make sure those needs remain addressed,” Brown said. “In Ohio we’ve got 1.3 million people, and over half a million of them are children, so you are living breathing testimony that I can take back to Congress and say why these programs work.”

Katie Carver Reed, vice president of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, encouraged Becerra to incentivize health care systems across the country to screen patients for food insecurity.

“Also, supporting an improved data infrastructure for screenings and more information sharing across hospital systems in the social service sector would be extremely beneficial. It would really streamline the process for us, in those partnerships,” Carver Reed said.

Becerra added that he’d like to see more health systems across the country open in-house food pantries, like the Food Farmacy. The key to addressing food deserts is to get grocery stores involved, he said.

“They obviously have to see it profitable to be in a particular neighborhood and open up their grocery stores. We have to help make it profitable for them, but they also have to understand that, if they can make a little bit of money, at the same time, they can create a lot of better health in these neighborhoods,” Becerra said.

Sykes agreed more collaboration is needed.

“To get at some of the systemic issues, it is engaging more people throughout the community, sometimes partners we don’t always think of,” Sykes said. “Certainly grocers are there, but who is even providing the produce to the grocers? Let’s get them in the conversation, cut out that middle man, and see if we can get lower food prices.”

Becerra added that HHS is looking to fund innovative ideas, such as states using Medicaid dollars in school systems.

“Rather than wait until a parent can take a child to the doctor or a hospital, do more where a school can actually get Medicaid dollars directly to in the school, so they can provide health services to the child there,” Becerra said. “We’d love nothing more than to see the state of Ohio come to us with a great proposal to use their Medicaid dollars in more flexible ways.”

The four Food Farmacy locations are: the Considine Professional Center at Akron Children’s Hospital, Cleveland Clinic Akron General Center for Family Medicine and Women’s Health Clinic, and Summa Health Family Medicine Center.

Physicians screen patients during primary care visits to see if they might qualify, but they can be referred to the pantry by any hospital employee.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.