Addressing Food Insecurity

NOURISH program provides access to healthy foods for patients in need

In recent years, the issue of food insecurity has increasingly gained attention nationwide. A household-level economic and social condition, food insecurity is the result of limited or uncertain access to adequate food. A program of the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center at Mary Greeley Medical Center aims to bridge the gap for those experiencing food insecurity – while helping those with chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease make healthy food choices.

The NOURISH program was launched as the result of a grant provided by the Mary Greeley Medical Center Foundation to the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center. The grant – funded by private gifts to the Foundation – enabled the purchase of non-perishable foods to be assembled into bags that could be provided to those experiencing food insecurity.

Each patient is assessed at their appointments or at visits from dietitians during an inpatient stay at Mary Greeley. If they indicate they are food insecure, they are provided one of the bags, which include a variety of healthy items ranging from foil packed salmon to canned vegetables and more. Special emphasis is placed on providing choices that are low in sodium and in addition to the food items, each bag comes with recipe cards so the ingredients can be used for multiple servings of healthy and tasty meals.

For Susan, the bags provided much-needed support during a financially difficult time.

“I went in to get more information about my insulin pump and to have my glucose monitor set up,” says Susan, who is living with diabetes. “I was provided a survey when I got there, and I was brutally honest. There were times when I didn’t have enough food to make it through the month. On my way out after the appointment, they told me to wait just a second and then came back with two huge bags of food. I couldn’t help myself. I just cried.”

The NOURISH program has worked with a local grocer to purchase staples for the bags at the grocer’s cost, making it possible to deliver more food to more in need.

Addressing a Need

Sarah Haveman, diabetes educator, poses with a green reusable bag and some healthy food items.Sarah Haveman, RD, LD, certified diabetes care and education specialist in the Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center, has worked on food insecurity issues in the region for more than a decade. She is one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the NOURISH program and says what seems a small gesture in providing a bag of food to a patient in need can make a world of difference.

“We are providing more than just a meal,” Haveman says. “Each of the recipes and the food items make multiple servings. So, it can yield quite a few meals. Whether it is to serve a family at home, or to cover several meals for just one person, we are confident we are helping those in need make ends meet. More than that, we know we may help reduce the stress that comes with our patients wondering where their next meal is going to come from.”

“Most of us who are receiving this support from the NOURISH program have one kind of health problem or another. Everything is so healthy, but it is also stuff that tastes good,” says Susan, who laughed as she explained that she isn’t much of a cook, jokingly adding she has even had trouble making ice cubes in the past. “It is more than just food. There were recipes and even a whole sheet that offered nutritional tips.

Food Insecurity in Central Iowa

While locally, food insecurity is not an obvious issue, the numbers show that many community members are struggling. According to the United Way of Story County, the county is facing a genuine hunger problem with nearly 1 in 4 children in the county eligible to receive free and reduced lunch at their schools. Until recently, the percentage of residents experiencing food insecurity in Story County was higher than any other county in Iowa.

Susan’s career was focused on serving others, including volunteering in some of the same food pantries she now relies on to make ends meet. Additional government assistance for food during the pandemic was helpful, but when that program ended, Susan says she was left scrambling.

“I am so blessed to have the help I do,” Susan says. “But when that assistance went back down, it made a lot of us painfully aware of how hard it is to ensure we have enough food each month.”

It is a staggering fact for a county that has food assistance programs in every community. Those numbers—and what the dietitians at Mary Greeley see every day in their work—made the NOURISH program necessary.

Maintaining Dignity

“Maintaining food dignity for individuals is important,” Haveman says. “It isn't necessarily something that people go out and shout about, that they are having to scrap for food. We have a regular dialogue with so many that it makes sense for us to provide for their needs with foods that can address the urgent need of their hunger, while also providing healing or just maintaining good health.”

“It should not be left up to only food banks and churches to consider food insecurity,” she continues. “We have heard from specific patients who have been helped by the NOURISH program and that feels good. But we are more about the big picture and ensuring those in need have multiple touch points for accessing quality food for themselves and their families.”

For Susan, the NOURISH program’s focus on the big picture has proven invaluable in her apartment kitchen.

“When people who have been middle class much of their lives plunge into poverty, it can go hidden because people like me will go without to ensure there is enough for those we feel are worse off than us,” Susan says. “This program has found a way to reach people like me who are truly in need without there being a stigma attached to receiving help. There is dignity in the way this program is run. It’s just a wonderful program. It really is.”

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