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Summit County Piloting State Program to Improve Health with Food

an image of the Akron Canton Regional Foodbank
Google Earth
The Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank is a partner in the Food Farmacy pilot program in Summit County.

Ohio is launching a new program this year, beginning in Summit County, that focuses on the link between chronic illness and poor nutrition and connects food-insecure patients with the medical and nutritional support they need beyond the doctor’s office.

It’s called the Food Farmacy Pilot Project with Farmacy spelled with an “F” to highlight the importance of good nutrition in combatting chronic disease. The program is a partnership between the Ohio Department of Medicaid, Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank and local hospital systems including Akron Children's Hospital, Summa Health and Cleveland Clinic.

“The core of what we do is serving anyone facing food insecurity, regardless of their health status," said Jill Oldham of the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank. "But we know that people experiencing food insecurity are more likely to develop chronic diseases and that children who are food insecure are at risk for developmental issues.”

House minority leader Emilia Sykes pushed for the $500,000 pilot. She says the program is in the process of setting up how people will access it and hopes the data collected from the pilot will help it to expand statewide.

Ohio House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes (D-Akron)
Leader Sykes drafted an amendment in the state operating budget to include funding for this program
photo of Rep. Emilia Sykes

“And additionally, knowing that health care is an expensive part of our state budget, and a very expensive part of many people's personal budgets, if we can save money and increase the quality of life for Ohio then we would have done something good. So, I'm very hopeful for the future of this program,” Sykes said.

House Minority Leader Emilia Sykes
Sykes says this program will help provide healthy food options in communities of color where redlining prevents easy accessibility to nutritious food.

The program will also help overcome challenges to better health created by redlining.

"This is a way to address some of the systemic and structural elements of racism that have persisted," Sykes said. "And especially including redlining, which has allowed for a lack of investment in many communities of color where we do not see a healthy environment, whether it is access to fresh produce and grocery stores, complete streets where there are sidewalks and safe walking ways, and then environmental issues like the water that we drink and the air that we breathe."

Patients coming in for routine health screenings will answer a questionnaire to determine their food security. That information will be shared with the food bank.

But according to Dr. Steven Spalding of Akron Children’s Hospital, patients without health care or reliable transportation may not be on their radar and the program will need widespread community support.

“This is where we start to need the help of the community because we as a health system don't know what we don't know. So if they're not coming in to see us at Akron Children's, we don't necessarily know that,” he said.

Spalding says the program hopes to partner with other local community organizations to provide medical and lifestyle support to patients without Medicaid or other health insurance.

Last month, the State Controlling Board approved a $250,000 fund transfer for the first year of the program. Its launch is awaiting finalization of contracts from the Department of Medicaid.

Jay Shah is an associate producer for the "Sound of Ideas." A former WKSU news intern and freelance producer, she's a New Yorker at heart but making Ohio her home has been her best adventure so far.