Editor’s note: For more on how ProMedica and other healthcare organizations are taking on the issue of food insecurity, see the Leadership digital feature “Providers Focus on Food Insecurity.”
I was recently asked what keeps me up at night as a health system CEO. Like many leaders in our industry, I am deeply concerned about our unsustainable healthcare model amid skyrocketing costs.
Even as our industry spends $3 trillion annually, one in four Americans suffers from multiple chronic conditions. To address such conditions, we have invested heavily in high-tech clinical care. Yet we typically overlook social issues and unmet basic needs that are often the root causes of poor health.
It’s critical that we pivot and take a new path. In recent years, a growing number of hospitals and health systems—including my own, ProMedica—have begun investing time, money, and resources toward finding solutions to hunger and other social needs. In the long run, these investments will help improve health outcomes and reduce the need for costly medical treatments.
ProMedica started on this journey nearly four years ago with a primary focus on hunger and food insecurity. In Lucas County, Ohio, where we are based, approximately 80,000 people are food-insecure, meaning they do not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
As one of the area’s largest health systems, we have a responsibility to help address this growing crisis. We started by reaching out to local organizations that run anti-hunger programs to find out how we could get involved. We ended up collaborating with many of those groups and implementing our own initiatives.
One program, conducted in partnership with Hollywood Casino Toledo, involves salvaging unserved food that would otherwise go to waste. We started this program in 2013, modeling it after Forgotten Harvest, a Detroit-area not-for-profit that has successfully reclaimed and donated food to people in need for more than 20 years.
The program was easy to set up and operate:
- We contacted our local health department for assistance with establishing a process to ensure that we followed appropriate food safety regulations.
- We developed a list of potential food-vendor partners with the capacity to produce a high volume of food that could be repurposed and served. In addition to food from the casino, we also salvage unserved food from two of our largest hospitals.
- We hired two part-time employees who were trained to safely repackage unserved food.
- We recruited a regional food collection and distribution center, SeaGate Food Bank, to pick up the packaged food and deliver it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
This has been one of our easiest programs to manage, and I am amazed by what we have been able to accomplish. For $30,000 a year, we have been able to serve approximately 275,000 meals since the program began.
We chose a casino and our hospitals as food vendors, but a large banquet facility or a university could have worked as well. Rather than purchase a delivery truck, we identified a community partner that already handled food distribution.
In addition to the food-reclamation program, we are fighting hunger in many other ways: sponsoring annual hunger summits to raise local and national awareness about food insecurity; hosting an annual 5K walk/run to raise money for organizations focused on food insecurity; and operating a “veggie mobile” that sells and distributes fresh fruits and vegetables to areas designated as food deserts. We also screen our patients for food insecurity and provide assistance to those with an identified need.
The most important lesson we have learned is that our organization does not have to do it all alone. I cannot stress enough the importance of talking with individuals at other organizations to identify areas where your health system may be able to collaborate to make a difference.
At ProMedica, we have found that building partnerships and sharing resources is the best way to go.
Randy Oostra is president and CEO, ProMedica, Toledo, Ohio.