Hungry no more: This coalition tackling food insecurity is one for healthcare leaders to watch

Last year, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 13.1 million children, according to Feeding America. Minorities, children, single-parent families and senior citizens are most affected by food insecurity, which is especially widespread in the South.

In 2015, a coalition formed to position all organizations — both in and out of healthcare — to better tackle this problem head-on, nationwide.

The Root Cause Coalition was founded by the AARP Foundation and ProMedica, a health system based in Toledo, Ohio. The nonprofit organization addresses the root causes of health disparities by focusing on hunger and other social determinants that contribute to preventable chronic health conditions. It engages in research on the correlation of hunger and other social factors to overall health and well-being and works to equip members with resources to make changes in their community.

The unlikely partners came together at a hunger summit in Washington, D.C., in 2014.

"We were there, listening to the same sorts of issues, talking together, and we said we should work together," says Randy Oostra, president and CEO of ProMedica and chairman of the coalition. "From there, the partnership quickly evolved because of our passion for hunger as a health issue."

The Root Cause Coalition has grown substantially since it was formally established last October, adding members like Ascension, Dignity Health, the American Hospital Association, Feeding America, Humana and a roster of 11 other national and regional health systems and local organizations.

Hunger first

The countless social determinants of one's health can leave health systems unsure of how to prioritize their efforts. The Root Cause Coalition chose to focus its efforts on hunger first because hunger and nutrition has such a large effect on a person's well-being. Hungry people are 2.9 times more likely to be in poor health.

Barbara Petee, executive director of the Root Cause Coalition and ProMedica's chief advocacy and government relations officer, put it simply: "Food is medicine." It makes sense for the healthcare industry to focus efforts there first. She also feels hunger serves as a natural segue into other social determinants of health. "If someone is food insecure…it's a pretty safe bet they're lacking resources for safe housing, transportation or living in a safe neighborhood."

ProMedica has addressed hunger as a health issue for years — for instance, it started a food reclamation program in 2013 that has recovered more than 275,000 pounds of food since. Additionally, the system treats hunger as a medical vital sign. ProMedica care teams screen patients for food insecurity. "We have a discussion, screen them and align people with resources and make the aware of community resources," Mr. Oostra explains.

Taking it national

Now that it boasts a variety of members from various industries, the Coalition is taking its message to the national stage. It is hosting its first annual National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health in Chicago this December.

"It has been exciting and gratifying for us to see the range of organizations that have become so interested and involved in the important work of the Root Cause Coalition," says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, vice chair of the Root Cause Coalition and president of the AARP Foundation. "When we came together as two organizations, we knew it would take a cross-sector approach to address these persistent and complex social problems."

Summit attendees will have the chance to learn best practices related to addressing hunger as a health issue — as well as other social determinants of health like housing and isolation — in their communities, from organizations and health systems that have found success already. "The more we all collectively share what we're doing, our passions, our stories and successes, and be a model for each other, the more we can impact people," Mr. Oostra says.

"Our aim is to really make this a national conversation among the healthcare industry," says Ms. Petee. "While we are finding solid and growing pockets of industry [working on this], it has to be something that is top-of-mind, second nature and part of the strategic plan, not something off on the sidelines."

Find more information on the National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health here.

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