By Anna Boisseau
Cook County will expand a pilot nutrition program into a second health clinic in the Chicago suburbs in early February. Doctors first began the process of questioning pediatric patients about their access to food at the Logan Square Health Center in September. After the success of the initial program, the Greater Chicago Food Depository will start training staff at the Cottage Grove Clinic in Ford Heights on how to conduct food insecurity screenings next week.
“Food insecurity is everywhere,” said Jim Conwell of the Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD). “A key part of launching this plan and this task force is also about…putting focus on the need…in suburban communities.”
According to the GCFD, over 30 percent of those struggling with food access in Cook County live in the suburbs.
The food insecurity screenings are one of the key components of the Food Access Plan, a partnership between the GCFD and Cook County. Doctors at participating clinics ask their patients three questions about their access to adequate food. This includes, “Have you skipped or reduced the size of your meals because you didn’t have enough food?”
“This is an effort to make food access part of a person’s health regimen,” said Conwell.
“It’s definitely worth the time in asking and worth the time in investing,” said Dr. Denise Cunill, who helps lead the program at Logan Square. According to Dr. Cunill, over 50 percent of the patients at her clinic have been identified as food insecure.
“Once a patient is screened positive, ideally the provider should illicit a little more information,” said Dr. Cunill. “So you have to ask them more in-depth questions.”
The parents of children who test positive are given a list of potential resources in their area. Some are also referred to social workers to coordinate more care. Dr. Cunill said some patients are already receiving government aid in the form of food stamps, but “need a little bit more guidance in to how they are spending their money.”
The clinics also gives vouchers to the FRESH truck, a mobile produce provider that visits the location every other month.
Dr. Cunill said that the program has also been a learning opportunity for her clinic. “We’re identifying that we ourselves need to become better educated in terms of nutritious diets and using food as medicine,” she said.
As part of the agenda of the two-year Food Access Program, the Cook County Health and Hospital System plans to implement insecurity screenings in all its locations by 2018. The plan also includes an expansion of school breakfast and summer meals in the suburbs and increasing the number of farmers markets that accept food stamps.
“Those were the areas where the Food Access Steering Committee identified an unmet need…but also an opportunity to make a real impact in two years,” said Conwell.