Region's first food pharmacy opens at Hurley Medical Center

FLINT, Michigan—Here, it’s about more than a band-aid. Here, it is about health. Down the hall and around the corner at Hurley Medical Center is a new pharmacy that provides the most basic prescription for better health—access to healthy foods. 

Hurley opened the region’s first food pharmacy on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017, with a ribbon cutting ceremony. Food insecurity is a pervasive issue across the United States—one that has become an even more critical need in Flint in the wake of the water crisis. 

“The idea is where our patients who are food insecure could come and get medically tailored food,” said Alisa Craig, administrator of Wellness and Population Health at Hurley Medical Center. “It’s where we can give them and their families a couple of days’ of healthy food, but more importantly we can triage them into community resources.”
The programs provides 2 days’ worth of food for the patient and the members of the patient's household, twice a month for three months where upon they will be reevaluated for eligibility.
“The really important part about all of this is that they can be ushered into other community resources that they are eligible for,” Craig said. “A lot of people in our community are eligible for programs like SNAP and they might not know it or might not know how to enroll,” for the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which increases access to food vouchers and other benefits. “We want to offset the choices many patients have to make between medication and filling their pantry at home.”
Craig anticipates the Hurley Food Pharmacy initially will serve upwards of 200 families a month. The food pharmacy will be open three days a week (9 a.m.-1 p.m. Tuesdays from, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays, and 2 p.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays) and serve patients who are referred by their healthcare provider. 
Cheryl Whitehead discovered her sugar levels were a sky-high 487 after going to Hurley recently. Her health issues have prevented her from being able to work and Hurley staff quickly discovered she qualified as food insecure. “I think this is awesome, I really do. It’s so needed,” said Whitehead, who received healthy food and a consultation with the on-staff dietician at the Food Pharmacy. 
Usually at the hospital level, a patient is asked two screener questions to respectfully evaluate whether there is a food need, Craig says. “We ask the patient in the last 12 months, were you worried you did not have enough money to buy food?” she said and, “in the last 12 months did you run out of food?”

The program is unique because of the medical intervention to check for food insecurity, said Kara Ross, vice president of partnerships and external affairs for the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan. “Getting the question asked of whether there is a food need in the home is groundbreaking. That way we can get these wrap around services and nutritional services to the home faster,” Ross said.

Noting the different safety nets in the community, like the mobile food pantries, feeding sites and distribution sites, Ross said, the food pharmacy is, “another tool in our fight against hunger at the local level.” 

The USDA defines Food Insecurity as, “the state of being without reliable access to sufficient quantity of affordable nutritious food.” Hurley’s Food Pharmacy comes into being while the national average of food insecure families is on the rise. Direct healthcare costs related to hunger is $155 billion annually, according to the USDA.

In Flint and across the nation food insecurity hits the young and older Americans disproportionately. With older adults 9 times more likely to skip medication due to saving money for food. Children in food-insecure homes are hospitalized more frequently, recover slower from illness, and have a lower quality of health overall.

“Being a dietician we tell people the right things to do, the right foods to buy,” said Susanne Gunsorek, who is the Food Pharmacy’s on-staff registered dietician. 

Gunsorek also provides the food, recipes, and instructions for preparation “with the hope that it will change overall choices, behavior and eventually health outcomes in the long term.”

Funding for the pharmacy comes from a partnership with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, authorizing a grant of $50,000 to the Hurley foundation from the Arthur L. Tuuri Fund.

The Hurley Food Pharmacy officially opened after a ribbon cutting ceremony and press conference on Aug. 1, 2017
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jake Carah.