New program reaches food insecure residents at local health care centers

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley loads boxes full of food onto a dolly before delivering them to the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, May 13, 2022. Buckley joined HACAP in November of last year and says the program has been growing steadily. The program currently delivers to 10 different locations around Cedar Rapids. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley brings in boxes of food to the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, May 13, 2022. The free clinic receives 25 boxes at a time and goes to those who are food and nutrition insecure. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

25 food boxes sit in a room at the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, May 13, 2022. The boxes are filled with healthier food options to combat nutrition insecurity. HACAP uses a doctor to oversee the items that are put in the boxes. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley brings boxes of food into the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Friday, May 13, 2022. The clinic will be able to distribute the boxes to individuals and families that are food insecure. HACAP focuses on making sure the boxes are filled with healthier food options like no sugar added applesauce. (Savannah Blake / The Gazette)

Cedar Rapids – As expanded benefits end and costs soar, an area food reservoir is hoping to reach more food insecure residents by partnering with local health care facilities.

The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP) Food Reservoir launched the Food is Medicine program earlier this year, an initiative that relies on health care providers to screen patients for need and provide immediate assistance, should individuals indicate they struggle with food access.

The program has established partnerships with 10 health care facilities in the Corridor region, including free medical clinics, hospitals, public health clinics and the Linn County Access Center.

As part of this partnership, these facilities agree to screen patients during appointments for food insecurity within their household. Because these screenings are coming from trusted health care providers, the program believes it will be able to provide help to more individuals who may not otherwise seek out food pantry services, said Kim Guardado, director of the HACAP Food Reservoir.

If patients do indicate they have struggled with hunger in the past year, they will be given a box of food before they leave the appointment.

Weighing in at roughly 20 pounds, each box contains a selection of healthy food items that are low-carb and low-sodium in order to provide families with good ingredients for meals. Items in the box include a box of macaroni, pasta sauce, brown rice, unsweetened applesauce and instant oatmeal, among others.

So far, providers have distributed around 400 boxes of food to residents across the 10 locations, Guardado said.

In 2020, an estimated one in eight Americans were food insecure, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Individuals who are food insecure often face major health challenges. When forced to make difficult financial choices to meet basic needs, individuals will often choose to purchase food over medicine. In addition, the added stress is detrimental to long-term health, according to Feeding America.

“We’re always seeing people who have less funds available to buy medicine, and we’re seeing more requests to help patients with co-pays and obtaining medicine for them,” said Jamie Henley, chief operating officer at Community Health Free Clinic. “If we can provide them with food, then that’s one less stress they have.”

The Food is Medicine program initially launched in May 2021 after HACAP received a $ 65,000 grant from Feeding America and Anthem Foundation.

It’s first partnership was Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, but the program quickly ran into challenges because of the stress the COVID-19 pandemic was placing on the hospital, Guardado said.

“Mercy supports the concept, but it was difficult to ask people working long hours to do more things on top of things already doing,” she said. “That was a big learning curve for us. We took a step back and thought ‘maybe the hospital right now is not a great place to start.’ ”

So, HACAP officials turned to the free medical clinics in the Corridor, including the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids.

The Community Health Free Clinic receives 25 food boxes each week to distribute to patients, which is typically gone within the first three days, said CEO Darlene Schmidt.

“We plan to participate (in the program) as long as there are people who are food insecure,” Schmidt said.

HACAP officials have grown the Food is Medicine program over the past few months as the need for nutritional support has grown in Iowa, a trend service providers are seeing across the country.

Universal free meals to students at K-12 schools throughout Iowa are also set to expire June 30, another potential strain on families as the cost of food, gas, utilities and other living expenses rise nationwide due to inflation.

Since April 1, Guardado said they’ve seen a 20 percent increase in the total number of people accessing food pantry services in the HACAP service area.

The grant to launch the Food is Medicine program has since ended. HACAP has folded costs of managing the project into its general budget, Guardado said, but the nonprofit is exploring other grant opportunities for the near future.

The program has since grown, most recently signing agreements with the obstetrics and gynecology clinic at the University of Iowa Health to work with high-risk patients.

And there are plans to continue growing. Guardado said officials hope to expand the program to include all seven counties within its service region, and is exploring opportunities to provide dairy and fresh vegetables to patients.

“We know people who face food insecurity live in all of our towns,” she said. “By partnering with the health care system in those areas, we can connect with those people.”

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