Hospitals could address food insecurity issues

Should hospitals expand their role in the communities and work to feed locals who are going hungry?

That's the proposal of Bina Venkataraman, director of global policy initiatives at the Broad Institute. She argued in a recent op-ed article in the Boston Globe that non-profit hospitals should take up the slack in that area.

Many not-for-profit hospital serve areas that are "food deserts"--essentially void of any healthy or nutritious food options, with most fare limited to what's sold in liquor or convenience stores, according to Venkataraman. Combine that with poverty, and some 17 million Americans experience some form of food insecurity. That also creates a long-term problem for hospitals as those facing food insecurity are twice as likely as the population at large to suffer from diabetes. And one in three Americans with chronic diseases has trouble affording food.

"The prescription for government and philanthropies has long been clear: Invest in healthy, accessible, and affordable food for the poor," Venkataraman wrote. "But recent policy changes and pilot programs also point to a role for hospitals."

Among them is the recent revision of regulations by the U.S. Treasury Department regarding how not-for-profit hospitals report their community benefit provisions on their annual tax returns, which encourage (but not mandate) that they ensure "adequate nutrition" for their service areas. 

In Massachusetts, state charity laws ask hospitals to voluntarily report their community benefits. Facilities such as Holy Family Hospital provide subsidies for members of the community to shop at farmers' markets; Massachusetts General Hospital screens patients for food security indicators and operates a pantry to address their needs. Altogether, there are 80 food-related programs operated statewide in Massachusetts. The non-profit organization Health Care Without Harm has called for matching funds to allow food stamp recipients to purchase fresh produce.

Some farmers work with hospitals to also supply them with food directly, but Health Care Without Harm noted that they often have a tough time beating the prices offered by group purchasing organizations. 

To learn more:
- read the Boston Globe op-ed article 
- check out the Health Care Without Harm blog entry