As they look for ways to transform health in their communities, Wayne Memorial leaders pegged wholesome food and access to it among the first obstacles to knock down.
The health system based in Honesdale is launching its new Food Prescription Program from the Carbondale Family Health Center. The program is geared toward patients who struggle to both manage specific chronic illnesses and regularly face food insecurity — or not having the proper food to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The program provides kits of shelf-stable goods and regular vouchers for fresh food and meat from a supermarket in the city.
“We picked Weis in the Carbondale area because we know many of our patients in Carbondale walk,” said Carol Kneier, the program administrator and a community health manager with Wayne Memorial.
The program also includes coaching on menu planning, portion control and health-conscious cooking techniques.
The health system aims to recruit 100 patients in the first year.
The AllOne Foundation, an organization born out of Highmark’s 2015 acquisition of Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania, awarded Wayne Memorial with a $300,000 grant to fund the first three years.
Eligible patients have Type 2 diabetes, congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, often called COPD.
“It is our hope that through outreaches such as the Food Prescription Program, complications associated with medical conditions prevalent within our community can be prevented and ultimately result in fewer lengthy hospital stays,” David Hoff, Wayne Memorial’s chief executive officer, said in a statement.
The health system is part of the Pennsylvania Rural Health Model, a pilot project in which the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pay health systems on a pre-established budget rather than for every patient and procedure as a way to stabilize revenue.
Part of the Rural Health Model includes exploring new ways to reduce hospitalizations and improve community health.
Wayne Memorial identified those three chronic conditions — diabetes, congestive heart failure and COPD — as troublesome and persistent illnesses in the community. Those diseases also happened to go hand-in-hand with food insecurity.
Diabetes, one disease that’s closely associated with diet and lifestyle choices, seems like an obvious choice for a food-as-medicine program.
In fact, the Geisinger health system is already treating diabetes and food insecurity with its Fresh Food Farmacy program, including at one clinic in Scranton, with striking results.
Wayne Memorial’s program is different for two key reasons. It doesn’t have its own little supermarkets like Geisinger has at its Farmacies. However, it treats patients with other chronic diseases beyond diabetes.
While COPD and heart failure might seem less obvious, Kneier said the foods we eat have broad-reaching effects on our health, especially for people managing chronic disease.
For example, congestive heart failure and high-sodium diets don’t mix.
“Many times, a high-sodium diet will exacerbate the disease,” Kneier said, adding patients who load up on sodium, found in salty foods, can retain fluid.
“When they get more fluid, they have difficulty breathing, and they end up in the hospital,” she said.
Now a low-salt diet sounds like no fun at all.
That’s why the Food Prescription Program will include different seasonings, for example Mrs. Dash salt-free options and Italian seasoning, as well as tips on how to use them to add flavor without ratcheting up the sodium.
So who is eligible?
Wayne Memorial is contacting eligible patients from the Carbondale clinic.
Kneier said routine monthly check-ins will be a critical part of the program, so doctors can monitor results and change course if needed.
Even if a patient is not eligible, Kneier said that other area food pantries are able to help address food insecurity, and that with the right tools and information, anyone can create more wholesome menus at home and improve their health through food.
“There are resources out there,” she said.