Pilot project at Strong Memorial tackles food insecurity

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A pilot project at Strong Memorial Hospital aims to give patients a helping hand when it comes to nutritious food. Through a partnership with Foodlink, the University of Rochester Medical Center will provide emergency food assistance via the URMC Food Pantry.

Currently available for patients at two ambulatory clinics, the pantry will expand across the hospital over the next year, officials say. During their hospital visits, patients are screened for food insecurity markers. Such screens typically check if a patient has resources to access food and if there is a stable food supply, according to Feeding America. 

In the Strong pilot project, patients in need receive bags of nutritious shelf-stable food that can support a patient and their family for three days. Social workers at URMC who follow up with these patients after their visit can then refer them to other services provided by Foodlink or other local organizations. 

“Foodlink has been recognized as a national model for addressing food insecurity in the Greater Rochester community,” says Kathy Parrinello, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Strong Memorial. “We’re delighted to help support Foodlink’s important work as part of our efforts to strengthen equity in health care by helping all patients live their best, healthiest lives.”

Patient Discharge Ambassador Aldwin Perez packing a bag. (Photo: University of Rochester)

The partnership pilots a referral-based emergency food pantry located at the ground floor of Strong Memorial. The pantry is being used for patients who visit Strong Internal Medicine and Golisano Children’s Hospital Pediatric Practice. Upon answering a two-question screener, patients who are identified with food insecurity receive a voucher for a free bag or two, depending on family size, of shelf-stable food.

At patient discharge, these individuals meet Strong’s patient discharge ambassadors who help with providing the bags and keeping track of the pantry’s volume.

“Our patient discharge ambassadors play a key role in ensuring our process runs smoothly,” says Kelly Luther, director of social work and patient and family services at the hospital. “I’m glad we’re able to optimize the patient discharge ambassadors’ collective enthusiasm and passion for ensuring our patients leave our facility with the support they need.”   

Strong Memorial’s food and nutrition services will pack bags with nutritious food provided by Foodlink along with recipes and tips for proper storage. Jennifer Glen, director of food and nutrition services, says her team wants to ensure patients leave the pantry with food that’s part of a healthy diet.

These patients then have the opportunity to follow up with a social worker during or after their visit with an aim to establish connections for lasting solutions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a household-level economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. In Foodlink’s service area spanning10 counties, more than 152,000 residents are food insecure, officials say. A 2020 Monroe County report by Common Ground Health found that the physical environment played an important role in residents’ abilities to engage in physical activity and access nutritious food. Nearly 6 percent of the population live in a food desert while 20.6 percent of those surveyed said they were food insecure in the last month.

“We applaud our partners at URMC for supporting the nutritional needs of their patients with the launch of the first hospital-based food pantry in our region,” says Julia Tedesco, president and CEO of Foodlink. “Screening for, and addressing, food insecurity is a great first step. URMC’s commitment to provide wrap-around services and engage their social workers to ensure other needs are met and resources are provided is what really makes this program stand out and serve as a model for others to replicate.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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