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Allegheny Health Network Opens Healthy Food Center

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

First-of-its-kind program in the region offers eligible patients free foods aimed at better managing health conditions

PITTSBURGH  – At the newly opened Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Healthy Food Center, food is medicine. A first of its kind in the region, the Healthy Food Center acts as a “food pharmacy” where patients who lack access to food can receive nutritious food items, education on disease-specific diets, and additional services for other social challenges they might face.

According to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, a partner of the Healthy Food Center, food insecurity affects more than 350,000 people – or one in seven adults – in our region. Food insecurity refers to a lack of available financial resources for nutritionally-adequate food such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains.

“As health care providers, we know that the impacts of food insecurity are far reaching and highly relevant to a person’s overall health and wellbeing. About half of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes in the U.S. are linked to poor diet,” says Stuart Fisk, CRNP, Director, AHN Center for Inclusion Health. “It is our mission at the Healthy Food Center to not only curb hunger in our region, but to link food and medicine so that patients can better manage their health conditions and lead healthier lives.”    

The Healthy Food Center, located at 4921 Mend Way on AHN’s West Penn Hospital campus, is now piloting its program among patients with diabetes who are screened by their doctor as being food insecure. Patients receive a referral to the Healthy Food Center where they initially meet with an onsite dietitian to discuss their dietary needs based on their condition. After shopping at the Center for the recommended food items, patients go home with two to three days’ worth of food for all members of their household.

According to Patricia Bononi, MD, Medical Director, AHN Center for Diabetes and Endocrine Health, healthy eating is one of the most important tools in managing diabetes as it has an immediate effect on patients’ blood glucose levels.

“The AHN Healthy Food Center is extremely encouraging for patients with diabetes; particularly those who are doing their part to manage their condition by regularly taking their medications and making lifestyle changes, but simply lack the financial resources to buy healthy food and the general understanding about which foods to eat,” said Dr. Bononi.

Patients may visit the Healthy Food Center once every 30 days for six months as part of their referral. During that time, patients also have access to a range of educational resources and nutrition counseling. After six months, a primary care physician may issue the patient a new referral to the Healthy Food Center if needed.

Because food insecurity rarely exists in isolation, the Healthy Food Center works in partnership with East End Cooperative Ministry (EECM) to provide additional case management and wrap-around services, such as children and youth services, housing programs, and workforce development programs.

In addition to the strains of food insecurity faced by individuals, Sameera Rahman, MD, Medical Director, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, said that communities face a substantial burden associated with hunger.

“Malnutrition among people with chronic diseases costs an estimated $15 billion in additional health care spending per year. The AHN Healthy Food Center stands to drive better clinical outcomes for those living with chronic diseases, thereby reducing the social and economic toll of food insecurity on our communities,” said Dr. Rahman. “Highmark was glad to support the startup of the Healthy Food Center by sponsoring its refrigeration,” she added.

Following the pilot among diabetes patients, the Center will work to continually expand its offering to more patients including those seen at a number of AHN primary care practices. Over time, AHN intends to open additional Healthy Food Center locations across Western Pennsylvania.

The AHN Healthy Food Center is glad to share its space on the West Penn Hospital campus with the Catholic Community of Bloomfield Food Pantry (CCBFP). For 25 years, the CCBFP has provided supplemental food to underserved Bloomfield residents.

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