Should Hospitals Become an Oasis in the Food Desert?

September 21, 2011



Toni Carey also regularly blogs about social media and health care issues for The Buzz Bin, a PR and marketing blog.This post originally appeared on the Buzz Bin blog on Sept. 16.

Food deserts (any census area where at least 20 percent of inhabitants are below the poverty line and 33 percent) continue to be a hot topic as the obesity epidemic remains a nationwide focus. Earlier this year, Rishabh Mehrotra, president and chief executive officer of SHPS, Inc., wrote a guest post for The Buzz Bin about food desert ratios and how to fill the gap. He noted that, “the average American family of four grocery budget of $700 per month is 3.5 times the monthly food budget of families in low-income neighborhoods” and food prices “are between 6 percent to 21 percent higher in lower income neighborhoods due to the inability to use standard trucking and processes.”

No one can deny that food deserts continue to be an issue affecting those living in urban and low-income neighborhoods, but the economic downturn has also spawned a new problem for middle class Americans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new interactive map, food deserts spread across the country from the West Coast to the East Coast, showing that access to food is no longer only a problem for impoverished communities and represents 10 percent of the country.

A 2008 study reported that more than 16 percent of Americans (49 million people) ran short of nutritious food, which is the largest number in the report’s history. Another study found that approximately 1 in 7 in the U.S. receive food stamps and nearly 15 percent of U.S. households were found to have low or very low “food security” (availability of food and one’s access to it). While the problem is becoming more apparent, the good news is that there are a number of innovative approaches being developed to being developed to combat this issue:
  • Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution spans the globe as his personal mission to change the way people eat. A recent recipient of the TED Prize, he brings awareness to the issue in a new and interesting way. One of the most interesting ways he’s doing that is with his Food Revolution Truck, which is a mobile teaching kitchen that travels the country.519GqC4eKzL__SL500_AA300_
  • In Washington, D.C.,Neighborhood Restaurant Group, a restaurant consortium, is launching a Mobile Market, a school bus turned farmer’s market, that accepts food stamps to bring fresh produce to Washington neighborhoods that lack easy access to full-service grocery stores.
  • Taking the espresso stand model, Stockbox Groceries repurposes shipping containers into pop-up grocery stores with fresh produce and other staples and plans to put them in parking lots in urban communities.
But what about the organizations that are supposed to make us better and ultimately be the advocates for our health and well-being? In the era of accountable care  and stricter reimbursement mandates, hospitals need  (and should) play a bigger role in keeping their communities healthy and serve as an oasis in the middle of local food deserts. While many hospitals are looking to outsource their cafeteria operations to save money, others are using their cafeteria as a means to educate their patients, visitors and local community about healthy eating. For example,Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, Calif., has an organic food garden to grow their produce to serve in its cafeteria. Establishing gardens may not always be feasible, but there are other ways hospitals can bring relief to the food desert crisis:
  • Partner with local farmers to use fresh, local produce in their cafeterias
  • Sell local produce in hospital cafeterias
  • Partner with a farmer’s market to host pop-up markets on hospital grounds
It’s time for hospitals to acknowledge their role in improving their overall health of their community and play a larger role in addressing this a global epidemic, which hits close to home.

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