'Food Pharmacies' Shouldn't Have To Exist, But They Do (And We Need Them)

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
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“Do you have enough food?”

This is a question you may soon be hearing your doctor asking at the end of your visit. And if you answer no, they may write you a “prescription” for the food you need.

When we’re talking about the needs of vulnerable communities, there’s something we’re often overlooking. Many folks may have the bare minimum when it comes to their dietary needs. Often, they don’t have enough food, or the kinds of food they need, and food insecurity is finally becoming a public health issue. As a result, doctor’s offices and hospitals are creating “food pharmacies” — places where those in need can get a prescription for medically necessary foods.

Food insecurity is a very real issue that affects a lot of people. At the beginning of the week, they may have enough food, but then it’s gone by Wednesday or Thursday. There are lots of reasons for food insecurity, financial instability and food deserts (or areas where there isn’t easy access to food) being two of the biggest things. Food pharmacies address both of those problems head on. By having the food readily available, all patients have to do is pick the items they want. The prescriptions are often based on their medical needs, therefore taking the guesswork out of shopping.

“I can prescribe medications all day, but if they can’t do the other piece — which is a decent diet and just knowing they’re not going to have to miss meals,” Suzanne Hurley, co-director of Connectus Health, a Nashville based federally-funded clinic, tells NPR. “Medications have to be managed around all of those things.”

More and more food pharmacies are popping up as organizations are acknowledging people in the margins. We tend to just focus on the people who are starving, but not having enough food is just as detrimental to one’s health. It’s the lack of consistency that can cause flares, especially for people with diseases like diabetes or hypertension.

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At many food pharmacies, organizers stock the shelves based on medical need. So cancer patients can “shop” the shelves full of high calorie items to keep their weight up. Diabetic folks can easily find low-sugar or sugar-free items.

It’s like Hurley said: Medications can only do so much, especially with chronic illnesses. Diet is just as important. So if people aren’t eating enough or the types of foods they need, they could be making themselves sicker, and chronic illness can cost hundreds or thousands in medical bills.

But the best thing about food pharmacies? Income isn’t a determining factor. The people in charge of Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee want healthcare providers to ask all patients if they need food. You can’t always tell by looking at someone what their food situation may be.

“We’re really pushing for universal screening, so you’re not picking who you’re asking that question to. The doctor already asks you really personal questions, and we don’t think twice about it,” Second Harvest nutrition manager, Caroline Pullen, explains to NPR.

She thinks that part of the reason food pharmacies are only now becoming more common is because of resources. “I think people have always been scared to ask this question because they didn’t really have the resources of where to send them.”

Having on-site food pharmacies eliminates the need for patients to travel. This is huge for seniors, who make up the bulk of people using the service. According to data from Feeding America, more than five million older Americans suffer from food insecurity. In other words, they don’t have enough food to live their healthiest lives, and many of them suffer from the kind of illnesses that benefit from a consistent and healthful diet. Feeding America’s data also shows that the amount of seniors suffering from food insecurity has doubled in the last 20 years or so.

Even though food pharmacies often focus on seniors, they aren’t the only ones facing food insecurity. Families with children also face high numbers of food insecurity. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is the first hospital to open the first pediatric food pharmacy. According to their website, one in five people in Philadelphia suffer from food insecurity.

Through CHOP’s Healthy Weight Program, families will be asked about food insecurity at every visit. Those dealing with food insecurity will then be referred to the on-site food pharmacy. During their visit to the food pharmacy, they will receive a three-day supply of food. Along with that, they will also get resources to address their food insecurity.

As Vernon Rose, overseer of the Nashville General Hospital Foundation points out, “40% of the folks can’t even afford their health care, you can imagine the choices they’re making.” For many people, the decision often falls between medically necessary medications and food. Food pharmacies mean they don’t have to make that difficult choice.

Families shouldn’t have to worry about feeding themselves and their sick kids. Older citizens shouldn’t have to choose between their medicine and eating dinner.

Rose explained to NPR that much of their funding comes from grant money. Hopefully, as hospitals and clinics show the benefits of food pharmacies, more organizations will find ways to fund them. They are really providing an extremely valuable service, and they should be in every big hospital around the country.