Clinics provide food and medicine to combat chronic hunger

"Food insecurity" has become a particular concern among seniors.

This is a Kaiser Health News story.

“We’re really pushing for universal screening, so you’re not picking who you’re asking that question to. The doctor already asks you really personal questions, and we don’t think twice about it,” said Caroline Pullen, Second Harvest’s nutrition manager. “I think people have always been scared to ask this question because they didn’t really have the resources of where to send them.”

“Food insecurity,” as it’s known, has become a particular concern among seniors. The anti-hunger group Feeding America found that 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.

Trudy Hoffman now gets free groceries at her monthly visits to Nashville General Hospital.

“They just asked me, did I want a bag of food to carry home?” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah.'”

The city-funded hospital started its pantry just for cancer patients in recent years but opened it to all patients this year and received a $100,000 grant in October to fund its expansion.

Organizers call it a “food pharmacy,” following the lead of places like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, with patients getting a “prescription” for what to pick up. Some shelves have high-calorie superfoods for cancer patients to keep their weight up. Others have low-sugar staples for people with diabetes and low-sodium items for patients with hypertension.

Vernon Rose, who oversees the Nashville General Hospital Foundation, said no one is surprised to see dozens of patients using the pantry each day.

“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 choices they’re making,” she said — such as deciding whether to pay for food, utilities or medicine.

The pantry operates mostly with grant funding. So Rose said the biggest challenge now is keeping it fully stocked with important but more expensive items like fresh produce and spices, which can be used to help patients keep some flavor while reducing salt in their diet.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WPLN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.