As part of its ongoing efforts to tackle the problem of food insecurity in Greater Houston, nonprofit health system Memorial Hermann has given hundreds of eligible families vouchers to buy fresh fruits and vegetables thanks to its new partnership with Target and Wholesome Wave.
About one in five families in the Houston region struggles with hunger or a lack of access to healthy and nutritious food—nearly double the national average. The crisis is even more acute among area youth, where an estimated one out of every four children under the age of 18 faces the threat of hunger every day. Nine percent of Houston’s high school students reported going at least seven days without eating fresh fruit, according to the results of a communitywide survey published last year.
In an effort to change those statistics, Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation teamed up with Wholesome Wave, a national nonprofit dedicated to making fruits and vegetables more affordable for low-income communities. The organization started its produce-prescription program, FVRx, in a pediatric clinic in a low-income community in Los Angeles. Thanks to a grant underwritten by Target, Wholesome Wave expanded the successful initiative to Houston, where Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corp. was selected as the sole grant recipient.
Nurse practitioners, dietitians and social workers at Memorial Hermann Health Centers for Schools identified about 300 families in need and provided them with vouchers that can be redeemed for free fruits and vegetables at any Target or participating farmers market. Since the program’s inception at Memorial Hermann, tens of thousands of dollars have been distributed to Houston-area parents and children to purchase fresh produce.
“With so many people in our community lacking reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food, it’s incumbent upon us to do whatever we can to build a healthier environment,” said Carol Paret, SVP and chief community health officer at Memorial Hermann. “If we want to improve the health of our population, we have to start by making a difference in the lives of children and their families.”
Food insecurity—defined as not having enough food in the fridge and pantry, or inconsistent access to high-quality nutritious food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables—has been directly linked to distressing health outcomes, including chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity for people who are forced to rely on cheaper, less healthy dietary choices. Untreated, these conditions over time can lead to costly and debilitating medical conditions and increased hospital admissions, according to a report from the American Hospital Association.
For children, the consequences of food insecurity can be even more complex, including increased behavioral problems, higher rates of anemia and asthma, greater risks of infant mortality and poor academic performance, according to the report.
“Everyone knows that daily consumption of fruits and vegetables is essential to good health, but tens of millions of Americans have to rely on cheaper options, and over time the public health results have proven catastrophic,” said Michael Nischan, CEO of Wholesome Wave. “Doctors can recommend eating more fruits and vegetables, but if patients can’t afford them, they can’t buy them. No child should ever say, ‘I don’t eat fruits and vegetables because my parents can’t afford them.'”
The program pioneered by Wholesome Wave has already seen results in other communities, with 69 percent of the program reporting an increased intake of produce and 47 percent seeing a decrease in their BMI.
The FVRx program with Wholesome Wave and Target is the latest step by Memorial Hermann to address social determinants of health, systemic social and economic factors such as food, housing and education that impact a person’s overall health status. Two years ago, Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corporation launched an initiative to screen patients for food insecurity.
A tool was added into the electronic medical record system prompting Memorial Hermann staff to ask patients if they have run out of food in the past month or were worried that they might. Patients who were identified as having food insecurity are then connected with the resources they need to access healthy food and other assistance.
So far, the screening has been rolled out to patients who are seen in Emergency Centers at Memorial Hermann hospitals, as well as those who seek treatment in Memorial Hermann’s Neighborhood Health Centers and school-based clinics throughout the region. The questions have also been adopted by practitioners in the Memorial Hermann Medical Group, a network of primary care physicians and advanced practice providers that see patients in more than 60 locations across the Houston area. Planning is underway to roll out the food insecurity screening across Memorial Hermann’s entire system.