New program reaches food insecure residents at local health care centers

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley loads boxes full of food onto a dolly May 13 before delivering them to the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids. Buckley joined HACAP in November and says the program has been growing steadily. The program currently delivers food boxes to 10 locations. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley brings in boxes of food May 13 to the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids. The free clinic receives 25 boxes at a time and they go to those who are food and nutrition insecure. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Food boxes sit in a room at the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids. The boxes are filled with healthier food options to combat nutrition insecurity. HACAP uses a doctor to oversee the items that are put in the boxes. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

HACAP Program Coordinator Amie Buckley brings boxes of food May 13 into the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids. The clinic will be able to distribute the boxes to individuals and families that are food insecure. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As expanded benefits end and costs soar, an area food reservoir is hoping to reach more food insecure residents by partnering with local health care facilities.

The Hawkeye Area Community Action Program Food Reservoir earlier this year launched the “Food is Medicine” program, an initiative that relies on health care providers to screen patients for need and provides immediate assistance, should individuals indicate they struggle with having access to food.

The program has established partnerships with 10 health care facilities in Corridor region, including free medical clinics, hospitals, public health clinics and the Linn County Access Center.

As part of this partnership, the facilities agree to screen patients during appointments for food insecurity within their household. Because these screenings are coming from trusted health care providers, the program believes it will be able to provide help to more individuals who may not otherwise seek out food pantries, said Kim Guardado, director of the HACAP Food Reservoir.

If patients do indicate they have struggled with hunger in the past year, they will be given a box of food before they leave the appointment.

Weighing in at roughly 20 pounds, each box contains a selection of healthy food items that are low-carb and low-sodium in order to provide families with good ingredients for meals. Items include a box of macaroni, pasta sauce, brown rice, unsweetened applesauce and instant oatmeal, among others.

So far, providers have distributed about 400 boxes of food to residents across the 10 locations, Guardado said.

In 2020, an estimated 1 in 8 Americans were food insecure, which is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.

Individuals who are food insecure often face major health challenges. When forced to make difficult financial choices to meet basic needs, individuals will often choose to purchase food over medicine. In addition, the added stress is detrimental to health in the long term, according to Feeding America.

“We’re always seeing people who have less funds available to buy medicine, and we are seeing more requests to help patients with copays and obtaining medicine for them,” said Jamie Henley, chief operating officer at Community Health Free Clinic. “If we can provide them with food, then that’s one less stress they have.”

The Food is Medicine program initially launched in May 2021 after HACAP received a $65,000 grant from Feeding America and Anthem Foundation.

Its first partnership was with Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, but the program quickly ran into challenges because of the stress the COVID-19 pandemic was placing on the hospital, Guardado said.

“Mercy supports the concept, but it was difficult to ask people working long hours to do more things on top of things they already were doing,” she said. “That was a big learning curve for us. We took a step back and thought, ‘Maybe the hospital right now is not great place to start.’”

So HACAP officials turned to the free medical clinics in the Corridor, including the Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids. The Community Health Free Clinic receives 25 food boxes each week to distribute to patients, which are typically gone within the first three days, said Chief Executive Officer Darlene Schmidt.

“We plan to participate (in the program) as long as there are people who are food insecure,” Schmidt said.

HACAP officials have grown the Food is Medicine program over the past few months as the need for nutritional support has grown in Iowa, a trend service providers are seeing across the country.

Iowa and other states have ended participation in a federal program that dramatically increased SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, throughout the past two years. As of April 1, benefits to help buy groceries to more than 287,000 low-income Iowans statewide have returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Universal free meals to students at K-12 schools throughout Iowa are also set to expire June 30, another potential strain on families as costs of food, gas, utilities and other living expenses rise.

Since April 1, Guardado said they’ve seen a 20 percent increase in the number of people accessing food pantry services in the HACAP service area.

The grant to launch the Food is Medicine program has since ended. HACAP has folded costs of managing the project into its general budget, Guardado said, but the nonprofit is exploring other grant opportunities for the near future.

The program has since grown, most recently signing agreements with the obstetrics and gynecology clinic at the University of Iowa Health to work with high-risk patients. And there are plans to continue growing.

Guardado said officials hope to expand the program to include all seven counties within its Eastern Iowa service region, and is exploring opportunities to provide dairy and fresh vegetables to patients.

“We know people who face food insecurity live in all of our towns,” she said. “By partnering with the health care system in those areas, we can connect with those people.”

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