'Food Pharmacies' In Clinics: When The Diagnosis Is Chronic Hunger : The Salt It's hard to manage chronic conditions without a steady source of healthy food. That's why health care providers are setting up food pantries — right inside hospitals and clinics.

'Food Pharmacies' In Clinics: When The Diagnosis Is Chronic Hunger

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All right. When you go to the doctor for routine care, often, the physician or the nurse will ask other questions, right? Do you have guns at home, is one of them, or, have you been feeling depressed? There's a new question that hunger advocates have been pushing. Do you have enough food? Since the answer is so often, not really, clinics and hospitals have started stocking their own food pantries. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: LaShika Taylor is the administrative assistant at Connectus Health, a federally funded clinic in Nashville, and this month, the back of her office transformed into a community cupboard.

LASHIKA TAYLOR: Peanut butter, greens, oatmeal...

FARMER: Taylor now doubles as pantry manager. It's mostly non-perishables at the moment. Clinic co-director Suzanne Hurley says it's not that patients are starving. It's that they may have a lot of food one day and none the next. That's no way to manage a disease like diabetes.

SUZANNE HURLEY: I can prescribe medications all day, but if they can't do the other piece - which is a decent diet, you know, just knowing that they're not going to have to miss meals and things like that - because medications have to be managed around all of those things.

FARMER: Food insecurity, as it's known, has become a particular concern among seniors. The anti-hunger group Feeding America found more than 5 million older Americans don't have enough food to lead a healthy life, a figure that has doubled in the last two decades. And in response, food banks are increasingly meeting seniors where they get their health care. Hospitals from Utah to Massachusetts are sending patients home with food. At Nashville General Hospital, Trudy Hoffman receives monthly infusions and now groceries.

TRUDY HOFFMAN: They just asked me did I want a bag of food carry home one day, and I said, yeah.

FARMER: The public hospital calls its pantry a food pharmacy because cancer patients might pick up high-calorie superfoods to keep their weight up. Hypertension patients choose from shelves with low-sodium staples. Vernon Rose, who oversees the hospital's charitable foundation, says no one is surprised to see dozens of patients using the pantry each day.

VERNON ROSE: Because when you're in a place like ours where 40% of the folks can't even afford their health care, you can imagine the choice they're making about food, pharmaceuticals. I need to get to work. I got to pay for this bus ticket at the expense of something else.

FARMER: These pantries operate mostly with private grant funding, so Rose says the biggest challenge now is keeping them fully stocked with important but more expensive items like fresh produce. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.


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