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Prescriptions for healthy foods in Camden

September 19, 2018

By Kaila Pedersen

Food Bucks Rx: Food As Health

Patients now have a new way to eat well thanks to Food Bucks Rx, a food need screening and support program started up by Cooper Pediatrics, The Food Trust, and the Camden Coalition.

The process is simple: During kids’ check-ups, Cooper Pediatrics providers ask two questions to screen for food needs. If a need is present, social workers come by the exam room to chat with the families and offer information from My Resource Pal to help with their needs. Families who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP or food stamps) also receive a voucher that they can redeem for fresh fruits and vegetables at Fayer’s Market — or, during harvest season, at the Virtua Farmers Market.

Toni Mathis, a social worker at Cooper Pediatrics, is a big fan of the program, which is supported by Campbell Soup Company and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The parents are never expecting it, and then they’re very grateful,” Toni said. “They tell me they don’t usually purchase fresh vegetables because they’re hard to get ahold of.”

How It All Started

In Camden, more and more medical providers are recognizing the importance of discussing food access and nutrition with their patients. After all, studies show that food insecurity is associated with some of the most common and expensive health problems, including asthma, cancer, depression, and heart disease. Last summer, the Camden Coalition delivered a survey in the waiting rooms of primary care practices across Camden. Half of the respondents reported that they had run out of food in the past 12 months.

In the face of such need, the Camden Coalition and The Food Trust developed a proposal for a food prescription program. The Food Trust had successfully launched similar initiatives in Philadelphia but faced some barriers in Camden; namely, tight hospital regulations around food storage and a scarcity of grocery stores.

To begin, the Camden Coalition recruited several practice champions at Cooper Pediatrics and facilitated conversations around how a food prescription process could fit into their workflow. The Coalition also conducted an analysis of patient zip codes to identify possible food pickup sites; a patient focus group helped to narrow down the options.

From there, The Food Trust took the lead. They engaged Fayer’s Market, a member of Camden’s Healthy Corner Store Network, to supply fruits and veggies to patients with the promise of regular reimbursement by The Food Trust. Routine check-ins with clinic and store staff helped turn plans into reality. “Fayer’s is really a gold star corner store,” says Nija Rivera, of The Food Trust. “They have great relationships with their customers and are always willing to brainstorm about ways to make the program work better. They really have the community’s health at heart.”

Impact

To date, patients from Cooper Pediatrics have redeemed over $1,000 worth of produce using Food Bucks. After they use their vouchers, families can participate in the ongoing Food Bucks program: SNAP customers receive a 50% off all fresh fruits and vegetables.

Back at the clinic, providers are holding conversations they didn’t often hold before. “It was hard for them to ask about food insecurity because they didn’t know where to go with it if the patient said yes,” Toni explained. Now, with My Resource Pal and Food Bucks Rx, things are different. “They are really enthusiastic. This is a solution they can offer — it makes it okay to ask.”

A Growing Movement

Across town, Virtua has their own version of a food need screening and support program. According to Suzanne Ghee, Assistant Vice President for Business Growth and and Community Health at Virtua, “The Food Farmacy at Virtua is for patients experiencing food insecurity and chronic disease. Through our program, patients receive healthy food, nutrition education, and social services care coordination.”

But what if your social barriers to health aren’t limited to food alone? What if, in order to be healthy, you needed some assistance in keeping your housing?

For now, Cooper and Virtua’s screening programs focus on food access, but they will soon expand those conversations. As part of the Accountable Health Communities project that the Camden Coalition is steering, patients will be offered a questionnaire on health-related social needs, such as food, housing, utilities, safety, and transportation. Upon completion, they will receive personalized referral suggestions based on their responses. The project is part of a regional effort to better coordinate social and medical care across the South Jersey region.

More Ways to Access Food-as-Health

Want to learn more? Visit My Resource Pal to find healthy corner store locations near you, as well as programs that offer nutrition lessons, emergency food, and support enrolling in benefits programs.

Planning for the Food Bucks Rx program was supported by Campbell Soup Company, and vouchers are supported through The Food Trust’s participation in the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program.

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