New partnerships are helping Regional One Health’s ONE Health complex care team achieve its mission of treating every individual not just as a patient seeking medical care but as a human being struggling with day-to-day needs.
In May, United Healthcare awarded Regional One Health a $90,000 grant to launch a food pantry for patients who are uninsured or enrolled in TennCare or Medicaid. Regional One Health is one of seven nonprofits selected based on their efforts to promote better health in Memphis.
Megan Williams, MSN, RN, CNL, ONE Health project manager, said hunger is one of the biggest needs her team sees among patients. “We have met a lot of people who simply have no food. They’re starving,” she said. “People go to the emergency room because they’re hungry, and they know they can get a sandwich or some crackers or some juice.”
“Now, we can offer them another option – it’s a way for them to get some food.”
ONE Health, Regional One Health’s complex care initiative, uses support from the Regional One Health Foundation to employ clinicians and social workers to address not just the medical but social needs of health care “super-utilizers” – patients who make frequent emergency department visits and have numerous inpatient stays due to fragmented care and factors like homelessness, addiction, mental illness, hunger, lack of transportation, unemployment and more.
Patrick Byrne, Regional One Health Foundation director of development, said the food pantry is a valuable addition to ONE Health. “Being able to provide our patients with quality food is a critically important part of improving their health,” he said. “Establishing a food pantry not only keeps our patients nourished, which leads to better outcomes, it’s the right thing to do.”
Williams said the effort is also an example of how partnerships are key to ONE Health’s success.
Starting with the United Healthcare grant, she reached out to the Mid-South Food Bank to obtain food, which helps the grant money go further since the food bank receives donations and works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and vendors to buy food in bulk at a lower cost.
That allowed Regional One Health to create boxes with enough food for about two weeks. A box for homeless people offers items like peanut butter that have pop-off or twist-off lids and don’t need to be refrigerated or heated. A diabetic box created by a nutritionist has heart-healthy, low-carb options; and a smaller senior box has staples for patients age 55 and older.
Every month, ONE Health and Foundation staff, Regional One Health patients and employees and volunteers from companies including Medtronic meet to pack and distribute the boxes at the health care system’s downtown campus.
The partnerships don’t stop there, Williams said.
Because the grant requires Regional One Health to serve 3,000 patients a year, the boxes are a one-time form of assistance aimed at addressing emergent hunger. But Williams realizes patients often have ongoing struggles with hunger, so, “We give them a list of food pantries in the area as another resource, and on the day the pantry is open we bring in representatives from SNAP, disability and TennCare so they can get signed up. Having everything within this area is great for this system and the community we serve.”
It can be hard for patients to access social services they qualify for, either because they struggle with the red tape or they simply can’t get where they need to go to sign up. SNAP, for example, has only one enrollment location in Memphis, and it’s out by the airport.
That same idea drives yet another partnership under the United Healthcare grant, as ONE Health is working with the Cash Saver grocery store to provide $10 vouchers for fruits and vegetables.
Williams said the option is great for patients in South Memphis, where Cash Saver opened last year in the same shopping plaza as Regional One Health’s South Third Primary Care clinic.
“The area had been a food dessert,” she said, noting there were no grocery stores and residents lacked the transportation to leave the neighborhood to shop. “A lot of people were eating out of convenience stores and gas stations, so they weren’t getting a lot of fresh produce. With Cash Saver and the vouchers, they can just walk over and get what they need.”
Williams said she’s excited for the new resources, noting hunger can strike for any number of reasons: patients struggle to meet the requirements for food stamps, food stamp allowances don’t stretch for the whole month, newcomers don’t know where to go for help, hospitalized patients return home to spoiled perishables and empty pantries, etc., etc.
“Bottom line, too many people end up hungry,” Williams said. “This is a way to send them home with a box of healthy food so they can get back on their feet.”