JEFFERSON-Ashe Memorial Hospital’s Melissa Lewis has a simple way of tracking whether the hospital’s new food pantry is a success.
“If one extra person or one extra family goes home with a box of food – that’s a success to me,” Lewis, an AMH registered nurse, said. “Because we know there’s a need and we know they might not have had food without it.”
In December, AMH partnered with the Ashe Sharing Center and Second Harvest Food Bank to launch what might be the region’s first hospital based food pantry. Here’s what you need to know.
Stepping up to the plate
Formed in 1983 as a comprehensive effort to help some of Ashe County’s lowest income residents, the center refocused its mission in 2013. The group’s leaders made the call to focus the entirety of the center’s resources on providing food to people in need. In addition to the Sharing Center’s main pantry in West Jefferson the group has established satellite operations at Wilkes Community College’s Ashe Campus, a mobile pantry that serves the northwest corner of the county and a pantry at Mountain View Elementary along with the group’s new AMH location. Combined, its pantries served nearly 28,900 people in 2015, and Michael Sexton, executive director of the Ashe Sharing Center, said he expects that number to climb above 30,000 this year.
Why does a hospital need a food pantry?
While it might seem counterintuitive to establish a food pantry at a hospital, Ashe Memorial CEO Laura Lambeth called the hospital an ideal location for the project. Since the hospital’s patient base includes people from all walks of life, Lambeth said the hospital is in a unique position to screen for and help people in need. During the hospital admission process, patients are asked two questions: are they worried about where their next meal is going to come from and if the patient is worried about running out of food before they have money to buy more. How it works
“If they answered yes to either one of those questions, they automatically got flagged to get a food box at discharge,” Lewis said. “From the logistics side, it sends me an email to let me know that there is somebody up there.” Each box has enough food for a week and patients are referred to the Sharing Center for additional help. Sexton and Ashe County Sharing Center Board Member Kelly Vannoy first pitched the idea to Lambeth during the first week in December. The satellite pantry was up and running just a week later.
What, exactly, is food insecurity?
It’s essentially uncertainty over where your next meal might be coming from or how you’ll pay for it, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. It could mean you’re worried that the food you have will run out before you can find a way to pay for more, or that you cut the size of, or skipped, a meal or ate less than you felt you should because you might not have access to the resources you need to feed yourself or your family.
That’s the number of people considered “food insecure” in Ashe County in 2013, the most recent year with available data, according to figures from Map the Meal Gap. That’s roughly 1 in 6 adults, or about 16.9 percent. How does that compare to other counties? Avery County, for instance, has a much lower population – 17,756 residents – but maintains a comparable food insecurity rate of 16.3 percent, or about 2,890 people. Cherokee County in far southwestern North Carolina, has a nearly identical population, 27, 243 people, but only a slightly lower food insecurity rate at 16.4 percent.
So what if someone is a little hungry?
Why should we worry if someone is periodically hungry or considered food insecure? Likely because those periods of food insecurity become a regular occurrence in the lives of some people, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. While the NCBI says that each episode of food insecurity is generally just a short duration, the changes made to a person’s diet last for longer periods of time because “food insecure-households often experience repeated food budget shortages.”
Health takes a hit
It’s not just about feeling hungry – food insecurity hurts people in other ways. According to the NCBI, food insecurity generally leads to a decrease in the kinds of food you eat. People generally eat more refined grains and foods with added sugars, saturated and trans fat and other processed foods that tend to “be of poor nutritionally quality and less expensive calorie-for-calorie than alternatives.” Food insecurity also generally means people consume less fruit and vegetables and lower levels of micronutrients like iron, zinc and calcium. Eat like that enough and you could develop chronic disease, including hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes.
First of its kind
Clyde Fitzgerald, Jr, executive director of Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, said AMH’s food pantry is the first of its kind in the region. During a press conference held at Ashe Memorial on Feb. 23, he singled out the project’s model as one that should be replicated throughout the region by other food pantries. “The critical thing is access and education,” Fitzgerald said. “This new pantry expands access to food for people who might not be served anywhere else but it’s also a chance to let people know that there are resources out there that can help them if they need it.”
Making an impact
During January, the new pantry’s first full month of operation, Lewis said the program identified and served 18 different people. She said she expects that number to grow as the hospital’s Emergency Department will also begin screening its patients for food insecurity. On deck: a little shopping
Jan Jones, regional outreach manager for Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest NC, said the program will soon begin teaching people how to budget and shop for more cost-effective – and healthier – eats. The goal is to teach its clients how to stretch their food budget enough to end their hunger pangs for good.
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.