Exploring the connection between food and health in Washington, D.C.

Exploring the Connection Between Food and Health in Washington, D.C.

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A patient receives a boxed meal from Hungry Harvest, which contains three nonperishable meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Pictured above: A patient receives a boxed meal from Hungry Harvest, which contains three nonperishable meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

When a 23-year-old patient at MedStar Washington Hospital Center began experiencing serious health issues caused by lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, it never occurred to her that the food she ate could be part of the problem.

“She was a young woman who ate what people her age usually eat—things like chips and Cheetos—and those foods were not helping her,” says Kisha Copeland, community health advocate at the hospital. “But everything changed for her once she got access to healthier foods.”

Considering the patient’s medical needs, dietary concerns and ability to access healthy food in her neighborhood, Copeland connected her with Hungry Harvest, one of several programs that partner with MedStar Health to help address food insecurity in the community.

In three months, the patient successfully lost weight, experienced fewer lupus flare-ups, and required fewer hospital visits.

“It didn’t take long for her to see just how much her diet impacts her health,” Copeland says.

Graphic showing the prevalence of food insecurity in Washington DC.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center started screening patients for food insecurity and other social needs during discharge. Those who have difficulty accessing food due to cost, lack of transportation or proximity to a grocery store are provided with boxed meals. The boxes contain three nonperishable meals—breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Patients are then referred to a community health advocate like Copeland, who continues to work with them to find a program that fits their immediate and long-term needs.

Andrea Miranda, community health outreach manager, says many hospital patients live in Washington, D.C. Wards 7 and 8, areas that have been identified as food deserts with limited or no access to affordable and nutritious food.

“Until more grocery stores are placed in these communities, we are finding ways to bring healthier options to our patients,” Miranda says.

According to the Capital Area Food Bank, more than 30% of greater Washington, D.C., residents experience food insecurity, and households with children are twice as likely to be food insecure as those without children.

With such a prevalence of food insecurity throughout the area, MedStar Washington Hospital Center opened an in-house food pantry last year to assist any associates in need. The self-funded, donation-driven pantry is stocked with nonperishable food items, such as pasta, spaghetti sauce, and canned goods.

“The pandemic brought many food insecurity issues to light,” Miranda says. “Our associates appreciate having this resource available to help them and their families get what they need when they need it.”

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To learn more about MedStar Health’s programs and initiatives across Maryland and the Washington, D.C., region that are contributing to healthier communities, visit MedStarHealth.org/Community Health or email communityhealth@medstar.net.