Collaboration cooks up unique ‘Food as Health’ effort

Well fed: Improving community health through better nutrition is the main thrust of a first-of-its-kind, hospital-based food-insecurity program based on Long Island.

From the You Are What You Eat file comes a New York State first: a hospital-based initiative designed to comprehensively address hunger-related issues.

The New Hyde Park-based Northwell Health system and Bethpage-based Island Harvest Food Bank have announced the launch of Food as Health, a unique effort to address “the full range of factors that can lead to food insecurity,” according to Northwell Health, including poverty, lack of nutritional awareness, difficulty in preparing healthy meals and others.

Anchored by the health system and Island Harvest, the program is also supported by New York City-based charity God’s Love We Deliver, Bronx-based food distributor Baldor Specialty Foods, Illinois-based foodservice distributor US Foods and Hauppauge-based Long Island Cares, also known as The Harry Chapin Food Bank in honor of its founder, the late folk singer.

Food as Health is being introduced as a pilot program at Northwell’s Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital, where Northwell Health counts one in five patients as food insecure, meaning they don’t have reliable access to adequate amounts of affordable, nutritious edibles.

Food for thought: Patient Jannell Robertson (right) shares her opinions on the Food as Health program with (from left) Northwell Health’s Ram Raju, Long Island Jewish Valley Stream’s Stephen Bello, Island Harvest’s Randi Shubin Dresner, Long Island Cares’ Jessica Rosati and God’s Love We Deliver’s Dorella Walters.

Later this year, the program will be replicated at other Northwell Health hospitals – part of a broader effort to promote proper nutrition among the health system’s employees, patients and communities, Northwell Health said.

Through the program, patients identified as food insecure – including those diagnosed with health issues related to poor nutrition – will receive a nutrition consultation from a registered dietician and additional information on community-based food resources like Island Harvest and Long Island Cares. The consultations will take place in the patient’s hospital room or in Long Island Jewish Valley Stream’s new Food as Health Center.

At discharge time, the food-insecure patients will receive a two-day supply of fresh produce and healthy nonperishables – provided by Baldor and US Foods – and a “prescription” for two refills, according to Northwell Health.

If transportation is an issue, Long Island Cares will arrange emergency home deliveries. If patients are physically unable to cook for themselves, God’s Love We Deliver will supply “medically tailored meals appropriate for their health condition,” Northwell Health added.

And trained staff and volunteers will assist all eligible program participants with enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Noting “the best medical care in the world can’t keep you healthy” without proper nutrition, Northwell Health Senior Vice President Ram Raju said the Food is Health effort is designed to proactively stave off further nutrition-related medical problems facing those who don’t have enough to eat, or whose diets consist mainly of cheap fast food.

“As a wellness organization, we believe the only way to make a substantial and lasting difference in the health of the people in our community is by tackling some of the nonclinical factors that are holding them back,” noted Raju, who is also Northwell Health’s community health investment officer.

According to the health system, 1.3 million people throughout the New York metropolitan area (including Long Island, the five boroughs and Westchester County) are rated as food insecure, increasing their risk of chronic disease, longer hospital stays and costly readmissions. That includes more than 85,000 food-insecure people in Nassau County and more than 95,000 in Suffolk County.

With all of those lives hanging in the balance, Island Harvest is “honored” to work with Northwell Health on “a first-time partnership addressing the comprehensive needs” of the food-insecure population, according to Island Harvest Food Bank President and CEO Randi Shubin Dresner.

“We look forward to a long and successful partnership to ensure that the message of access to nutritious food, along with good medical care, remains an essential part of ensuring a healthy community,” Dresner said Wednesday.

Stephen Bello, executive director of Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, said the Food as Health program – which also emphasizes the purchase of locally grown produce, supports regional farmer’s markets and will promote healthy cooking through workshops in hospital-based teaching kitchens – is already scoring high marks among the hospital’s food-insecure patients.

“We are delighted by the feedback we’re getting from our patients, who say this will make a tremendous difference in their lives,” Bello said in a statement. “We’re also tracking … things like readmission rates and will use that data to refine our efforts.”

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