Today’s blog is written by Cristina Sotelino, VP of Communications and Community Engagement at Access Community Health Network in Chicago, IL
In the early days of the pandemic when the Chicagoland area was grappling with the stay-at-home order, many of our underserved communities were left with little to no resources. As COVID-19 cases continued to rise, the socioeconomic disparities that had long existed only became more prevalent. Transportation options became extremely limited, and residents were afraid to leave their homes for their essential needs. At the time, we at Access Community Health Network (ACCESS) made a conscious decision to not only ensure that our health center operations remained open but, that we would do everything possible to stay engaged with our patients by providing them critical support, credible information, and valuable, readily available resources right in their community.
For ACCESS, those resources naturally centered on food for health. Since 2015, ACCESS has been studying the relationship between food insecurity and health through our Food For Health initiative. As part of our integrated care delivery model, every patient is now screened regularly for food insecurity and linked to critical food resources. Additionally, ACCESS partners with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to provide fresh fruit and vegetable distributions outside select ACCESS health centers. These distributions provide patients the opportunity to pick up 20 pounds of free, fresh produce year-round, rain or shine.
As we continued to pivot with each phase of the pandemic and monitored patients’ needs, maintaining our produce distribution program became a critical part of our COVID-19 response. Over the summer of 2020 alone, we saw a large spike in patients and community members utilizing the fresh food distributions. Dedicated ACCESS patients like Mary found the food to be a valued part of pandemic survival:
“I was surprised that the food trucks kept running but, it has been much more helpful throughout the pandemic. If this food wasn’t here, I would have to go to a store and with my medical conditions that is very difficult. With this system, I am able to use every bit of produce every month and I love it!”
With our screening protocol and continued food distributions, we saw first-hand how social determinants of health, like food insecurity, were not going away, but instead were worsened by the pandemic. Before the start of the pandemic, the overall food insecurity rate across the U.S. had reached its lowest point since it began to be measure in the 1990’s. Those improvements were upended by the pandemic. According to a March 2021 report by Feeding America, it is now projected that 42 million people (1 in 8), including 13 million children (1 in 6), may experience food insecurity in 2021.1 During the pandemic, people who may not have considered themselves food insecure found themselves seeking out new resources and navigating systems that they may not have been exposed to previously. The combined impact of COVID-19, change in economic status, and increased fragility for families is also likely to have exacerbated health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and other chronic diseases.
Community health centers and partnering organizations can play a key role in ensuring patients do not have any gaps in their care due to social determinants of health. ACCESS’ ability to support the food distributions before and during the pandemic would not have been possible without our partner, the Greater Chicago Food Depository. By maintaining such integral partnerships in our communities, we were able to provide leadership and leverage this proven model during this time of crisis.
“We believe that a healthy community starts with food. Our work with Access Community Health Network builds a bridge for people in the community between preventative health care and quality, nutritious food. During the pandemic, we saw the need for food assistance increase dramatically across Cook County. Thanks to the heroic work of our partners, such as ACCESS, we’ve continued to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables to hundreds of thousands of families facing hunger,” said Emily Daniels, Senior Manager of Programs at the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Even as local and state agencies began to provide additional resources as the pandemic raged on, the need for our localized food distributions were sought after. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic when resources were scarce, the number of individuals seeking help increased significantly. Now, over a year later, patients still consistently visit our monthly distributions and seek out support.
“It’s convenient because it’s in the neighborhood, and it helps me stretch my budget, especially during the pandemic. By incorporating these new foods into my diet, I have lowered my cholesterol and lost weight,” said Brenda, an ACCESS patient at ACCESS Madison Family Health Center.
By investing in the total health of our communities, we believe we can help support the recovery of our communities. Serving 16 out of the 20 poorest communities in Chicago, we know that this type of program must be rooted in a larger approach that moves towards addressing the total health of patients. Health care leaders, community organizations and public officials need to continue to advocate for long-term support of this holistic approach to public health to create similar programs across the country.
For nearly 30 years, ACCESS has been on the frontlines of community-based health care, providing an integrated approach to care that connects patients to health care programs and resources both within and beyond the walls of our 35 federally-qualified health centers. To read more about our Food for Health work, please click here or visit www.achn.net to learn about our other initiatives.