New Trend In Cleveland To Use Food As Medicine

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Cleveland resident Virgie Bradford was shopping in early December, along with a University Hospital’s dietician, at the recently opened food pantry inside the Otis Moss Jr. Health Center.

After her yearly physical, Bradford’s doctor gave her a referral slip to visit the pantry once a month for free food.

According to a new report from the Center for Community Solutions, more than 25 percent of residents from some predominately African American neighborhoods on Cleveland’s East side have diabetes.

The report on racial disparities released this month also points out more than half suffer from high blood pressure.

While Bradford considers herself to be fairly healthy, she says she has had some issues with high blood pressure.

“Like ice cream at night. Getting up at night getting something to eat. That sort of ran my pressure up a little bit there,” she said.

Public health advocates have long argued one big barrier to preventing or controlling chronic health conditions stems from poor access to healthy, affordable food.

The UH health center is in the Fairfax neighborhood — a predominately African American community. Its new pantry is part of a trend in health care to try to change the dynamics of poor food access in underserved communities.

Dr. Margaret Larkins-Pettigrew of University Hospitals is part of the team that helped design the food pantry at the health center.

The neighborhood around it is a food desert, Larkins-Pettigrew said.

 A food desert is an area that lacks access to foods that make for a healthy diet such as affordable fruits and vegetables.

 “There are about 26,000 people who live in this area, and believe it or not, most of these people are married couples who live at or below the poverty level,” said Larkins-Pettigrew. “We want them to be able to feed their families and become healthy.” 

The food pantry is only open to UH patients who are considered food insecure, which means they can’t afford enough food or are concerned they may run out of food.

“Once they see the physician, she will talk to them about the fact that they are food insecure as well as do they have any comorbidities — diabetes, hypertension, obesity — that really can be affected by food because we see food as medicine,” she said.

UH is not the only Cleveland hospital using food as a tool to address chronic diseases.

MetroHealth System also opened a food pantry for patients inside its near west side main campus in September. Located in the outpatient plaza, MetroHealth officials call their pantry a clinic.

One of the goals of the clinic is to collect data for one year to test whether the food as medicine concept produces clinical benefits in patients when it comes to preventing or controlling diseases like diabetes.

In some Ohio communities, hospital systems have gone beyond the food pantry model to help address these health and nutrition issues. 

Toledo-based ProMedica Health System financed a full-service supermarket three years ago. The grocery store is open to anyone, not just the hospital’s patients.

Officials from several hospitals and nonprofit groups, including some from the Cleveland area, have visited the Toledo store. It has become a national model, demonstrating how health systems can use investment to address health and economic disparities in underserved neighborhoods.

Roger Sikes, a program manager at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health, would like to bring the idea to Cleveland.

“You know we have such strong hospital systems here and I’m glad about what they’re doing, but I think something to consider — can hospital systems invest in developing high quality grocery stores? Can they create those jobs in the local communities?”

Sikes heads up the Supermarket Access Campaign that works to bring grocery stores to communities in Cleveland that are food deserts.

One recent success was the opening of a Simon’s Super Market in the Buckeye neighborhood in October.

The new store filled a void in the community after a Giant Eagle, in Buckeye Plaza, closed its doors and left residents without an immediate source of fresh produce and food, Sikes said.

“If you look over here in the produce section there are high quality collards, tomatoes, apples and oranges that are accessible and affordable. So we do think that residents will be using this store and buying more healthy and affordable foods and eating them,” he said.

This is the second Simon’s store to open in an underserved Cleveland community. The first was in Euclid last year, he said.

Now the Supermarket Access Campaign is organizing in East Cleveland in hopes of getting a new grocery store there, Sikes said.


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