It’s a vicious circle: Since poverty is a leading cause of Type 2 diabetes, many diabetic patients lack the money for healthier foods. Consequently, they often buy prepared foods that tend to be overprocessed, low nutrient, and high calorie—the kinds of foods that promote Type 2 diabetes.
It gets worse. Those people also frequently have to choose between buying insulin or buying food, which may mean they skip meals altogether, making it more difficult to manage their diabetes and overall health in the long term.
Food pantries can help people with diabetes, but because of job, family, and other responsibilities, finding time and securing transportation to a food pantry can be difficult—and then there’s the stigma associated with needing food assistance.
But the OhioHealth Riverside Family Practice Center in Columbus, Ohio, is easing the process for patients with diabetes and providing them with much-needed produce for free.
“We’re trying to put a pantry in a place where they already feel safe and hopefully feel connected, so going somewhere to get healthy food isn’t one more new thing they have to do,” says Laurie Hommema, MD, the practice’s program director.
Riverside opened its own food pantry in May 2018 as part of the Food is Health program to encourage healthy eating among food-insecure diabetics. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
The Food is Health program is an initiative of the Mid-Ohio Foodbank that explores innovative approaches for providing access to affordable and nutritious food to measurably improve health outcomes. Riverside’s program is an offshoot. Because the practice doesn’t track income, it doesn’t qualify as a Mid-Ohio Foodbank pantry site, meaning the the practice isn’t eligible to receive funding for its food and so funds the program entirely itself. However, the practice does buy some of its food from the Mid-Ohio Foodbank.
Riverside’s program offers 100 percent of the recommended weekly produce for participating diabetics and their family members—about 15 pounds per person.
Food pantries in healthcare settings aren’t a unique idea. Still, they are rare. This is Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s first pantry in a doctor’s office in its 680-partner agency network, says Foodbank President and CEO Matt Habash.
The proven benefts
Food pantries have been shown to help diabetics manage their blood sugar levels. A 2015 study in the journal Health Affairs followed nearly 700 food pantry clients with diabetes for six months. The authors piloted an intervention that provided them with diabetes-appropriate food, blood sugar monitoring, primary care physician (PCP) referral, and self-management support.
Study results showed improvement in mean A1C from a baseline of 8.11 to 7.96 percent. The percentage of participants with A1C greater than 9 percent declined from 28 to 25 percent. Further, the authors found those with A1C greater than 7.5 percent at the start of the study saw a mean A1C decline from 9.52 to 9.04 percent and improvements in secondary outcomes.
The authors also saw significant improvements in fruit and vegetable intake and self-efficacy. Diabetes distress and medicine nonadherence declined, and participants made fewer trade-offs between buying food or medicine.
Although Riverside is not formally tracking before-and-after measurements, it’s already seeing similar results. It’s also seeing weight loss among participants’ nondiabetic family members—and better morale among the providers who are giving dietary counseling to participants.
The local need
In 2016, 69 million meals were missed by the 400,000 people living below the 200 percent federal poverty level in Franklin County, which includes Columbus, because those people couldn’t afford food for every meal, Habash says. The Foodbank, which covers 20 counties in central Ohio, including Franklin County, wanted to establish a Food is Health food pantry in a healthcare setting and found a willing partner in Riverside.