Skip to main content

Food as health

Food Insecurity is defined as the state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. Research shows that food insecurity increases the risk of chronic disease, lengthens hospital stays, raises the likelihood of hospital readmission and inflates healthcare costs. For food insecure individuals and populations increasing access to healthy, affordable food is integral to improving individual and community health.

In our surrounding communities, 1.4 million residents report being food insecure and are thus at risk of poor health outcomes. In order to support patients from our communities attending our facilities and reporting food insecurity as a barrier to health, we developed an initiative to provide healthy, affordable and tasty food based on the patient’s level of need at their point of care, in their communities or in their homes.

At Northwell Health, we use a three-prong strategy that empowers patients to improve their unique needs through food. By using EATS (educate, access, transport, and support), our goal is to nourish and nurture our patients and their communities to achieve their full potential in a sustainable way.

About the program

The Food as Health program is the first hospital-based initiative in New York State to comprehensively address food insecurity among patients. The program, a partnership that includes Island Harvest, Long Island Cares Inc. (LI Cares), The Harry Chapin Food Bank, God’s Love We Deliver, US Foods, and Baldor, is unique in addressing the full range of factors that can lead to food insecurity—including affordability issues, a lack of nutritional awareness, transportation/mobility challenges, and difficulty in preparing meals.

“Northwell launched Food as Health because if you don’t have enough food to eat, or if all you have is fast food, the best medical care in the world can’t keep you healthy,” says Ram Raju, MD, the health system’s senior vice president and community health investment officer. “As a wellness organization, we believe the only way to make a substantial and lasting difference in the health of the people in our community is by tackling some of the nonclinical factors that are holding them back.”

The first program site is at Long Island Jewish (LIJ) Valley Stream, where one in five patients are food insecure—meaning that they do not have reliable access to adequate amounts of affordable, nutritious food. Patients at LIJ Valley Stream with a diagnosis impacted by nutrition are screened and those who are identified as food insecure receive a nutrition consultation and navigation to community food resources by an Island Harvest registered dietitian, either in the hospital’s Food as Health Center or in their hospital room.

At discharge, these patients are given a two-day supply of fresh produce and non-perishable food (provided by Baldor Foods and US Foods) and an “authorization” for two emergency food refills. If patients have transportation or mobility issues, LI Cares will deliver emergency food supplies to their homes and provide navigation services to community food resources and entitlement programs.

“Island Harvest Food Bank is honored to be working with Northwell Health in launching Food as Health, a first-time partnership addressing the comprehensive needs of patients who are food insecure,” says Randi Shubin Dresner, president and CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank. “We look forward to a long and successful partnership to ensure that access to nutritious food, along with good medical care, remains an essential part our community.”

Finally, if patients are unable to cook for themselves, God’s Love We Deliver will deliver medically tailored meals appropriate for their health condition to their home. To ensure healthy food will be affordable on an ongoing basis, all patients in the program, if eligible, will be provided assistance with enrolling in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Providing fresh fruits and veggies to communities in need

In addition to supporting five local farmers markets in the communities of Long Beach, Freeport, New Castle, Riverhead and Wyandanch, Northwell Health is a partner in the FREE Fresh Truck Mobile Market, a farmer’s market on wheels run by the Old Bethpage-based nonprofit Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. (FREE). The truck, donated by Suffolk Transportation Services, Inc., is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables to make healthy, local, affordable produce available to Long Islanders, especially those who are experiencing food insecurity. The truck makes scheduled weekly stops at six locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

The FREE Fresh Truck Mobile Market is FREE’s way of making locally grown fresh produce more accessible in high need communities. In addition, it provides FREE with a means of making a positive impact on the obesity epidemic. The FREE Fresh Truck Mobile Market will have nutrition educators on hand to help answer questions and provide guidance as well as tip sheets, books, samples and giveaways.

“As an organization that cares for two million people every year, we see many who would benefit from adding more fresh produce to their diets and appreciate FREE’s partnership to accomplish this,” says Ram Raju, MD, chief community investment officer at Northwell Health. “Many ailments, from heart disease to diabetes, could either be prevented or minimized through a healthy diet that incorporates fresh fruits and vegetables.”

“The produce will primarily come from FREE’s FREEdom Farm in Brentwood,” says Robert S. Budd, MPS, chief executive officer of FREE. “Some additional items will come from farms at our affiliate Skills Unlimited, Inc. in Oakdale and FREE’s Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island. We appreciate Northwell Health’s partnership in this endeavor, which will go a long way to providing people with the fresh produce that is so beneficial for their diets and lives.”

The Fresh Truck Mobile Market will be available during the growing season at the Dolan Family Health Center in Greenlawn, the Family Medicine Center at Glen Cove Hospital, Adelante of Suffolk County in Central Islip, FREEdom Farm in Brentwood, HRHCare Health Center at Brentwood and Southside Hospital in Bay Shore.