The latest addition to the partnership between Cook County Health and Hospitals System (CCHHS) and the Greater Chicago Food Depository is the FRESH Truck mobile produce distribution at Oak Forest Health Center. On Thursday morning, patients received food vouchers from their doctors for a visit to the FRESH Truck. As they walked through the truck, volunteers provided assistance with selecting a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, including melons, celery, potatoes, onions, and cabbage. More than 125 clients took home produce.
Doctors and patients agree that this nutritious, accessible food can lead to better health outcomes for people with chronic diseases. Dr. Chukwuemeka Ezike sees many patients with lifestyle-related conditions like diabetes and hypertension in his practice at Oak Forest Health Center. “Many of the patients don’t have the option to find healthy, good quality food,” he says. “The program will benefit patients not only by giving them better food, but also by encouraging them to keep their appointments with our clinic.”
As part of the partnership between the Food Depository and CCHHS, Dr. Ezike and his colleagues now screen their patients for food insecurity. Most patients have been receptive, he says: many mention related challenges, such as lack of access to transportation. Bringing the FRESH Truck to a convenient site like the health center addresses some of these barriers. The Oak Forest Health Center also informs patients who are food insecure about nearby food pantries available to them.
One patient, Donnel Jones, walked off the FRESH Truck with three bags of vegetables. “It came in handy,” he says. He learned about the FRESH Truck when he received greens and kale from the Oak Forest Health Center’s community garden recently, along with a voucher for the upcoming FRESH Truck distribution. “I love cooking – I learned that from my mom,” he recalls. Donnel would love to include more fresh produce in his diet, but it can be a challenge to afford these items. His SNAP benefits have been reduced by more than half, and the $80 in assistance he receives each month doesn’t go far at a grocery store. Being able to prepare fresh greens and vegetables makes a substantial difference in his diet.
Dr. John Jay Shannon, CEO of Cook County Health and Hospitals System, was at Oak Forest to see the FRESH Truck in action. He anticipates a broader impact for the culture of the health center: “It goes beyond material clinical care. It gets clinicians thinking about the community that we serve,” Dr. Shannon said. He notes that “there’s been a marked suburbanization of poverty.” The partnership between CCHHS and the Food Depository represents a key opportunity to address food insecurity throughout the county while educating both patients and their doctors about the impact of healthy food.