LEOMINSTER — In a prelude to the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health later in September, local organizations met with federal officials Friday to discuss an end to food insecurity and the continued effort to improve the health and wellbeing of the U.S.
Representatives of UMass Memorial Health, Making Opportunity Count, HEAL Winchendon and other community-based aid programs joined U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, and federal Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra at Growing Places, a nonprofit designed to address food insecurity. There, McGovern and Becerra celebrated those programs and discussed the work that must be done to address hunger, nutrition and food insecurity across the country.
“We’re here today with an incredible, great group of people with firsthand experience with a number of innovated, forward-thinking programs,” McGovern said. “I hope that we can learn from them, consider how me might scale up some of the work that they’ve done and that HHS can be the wind at their backs as we move forward.”
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, the wheel has already been invented — and Massachusetts is doing incredible things in terms of linking nutrition and health,” he said.
“We have to partner with states, to partner with local authority to make sure we can reach communities that are suffering from food insecurity,” Becerra said. “We have to be able to partner with Congressman McGovern and his colleagues to make sure we’re doing the right things with the dollars they give us that we are actually executing to improve health for Americans and food security for Americans.”
First, the roundtable highlighted UMass Memorial Health’s Food “Farmacy.” UMH President and CEO Eric Dickson described the program, in which patients deemed at risk of food insecurity are provided a food “prescription” and, after nutritional counseling with a dietician, are provided with or directed toward foods that fit their unique nutritional or dietary needs.
“It would be very easy for us to say ‘in healthcare, it’s not our responsibility to ensure the citizens of this country have access to healthy food,’” Dickson said. “But we have not taken that approach, we believe it is our responsibility to make sure our patients get the right nutritional therapy — for us, food is medicine.”
Dickson was followed by Priscilla Espinosa of SproutChange, a grassroots organization designed to empower locals to grow their own food and “use food as medicine.”
Later, Community Health Connections and Making Opportunity Count, in partnership with the Spanish America Center, described their “culturally competent” initiatives.
CHC provide “high quality, affordable care” to the community through nutritional consultations and education, according to CHC’s Denise Foresman. MOC and the Spanish America Center, meanwhile, partner to ensure homebound meals feed as many families and individuals in need as possible.
“It truly can take a village to do this and keep it going,” MOC’s Alex Welch said.
Lastly, Miranda Jennings, Angelina Dellasanta and Molly Velasco of HEAL (Hold, Empower, Access, Live) Winchendon, a “community movement” working with Heywood Hospital to facilitate healthy food access and promote economic empowerment and social inclusion, stressed the significance of these issues in low-income communities.
“We focus on root causes within policies, systems and environments to prevent disease, impact population health and enact lasting change,” Jennings said. “This approach recognizes that 80% of a person’s health is determined by their living conditions and social contexts, where they live, work, go to school — we have to address complex issues like poverty, power and racial equity.”
Velasco and Dellasanta discussed HEAL’s “Youth Changemaker” program, which Velasco said “raises civic involvement and helps shape the next generation of policymakers.” Through the program, Dellasanta said HEAL has promoted skills such as “grant writing, requesting permits and advocating for others” as well as “emphasizing why a sense of belonging is so important to the health of a community.”
In closing, McGovern and Becerra stressed the importance of the Sept. 28 conference, the first of its kind in more than 50 years, and praised those in attendance for the work they have put in to address food insecurity in their local communities. McGovern went on to describe food as a “human right,” while Becerra said the conference was their opportunity to “change the world.”
“(The White House Conference) is a great opportunity,” Becerra said. “What many Americans don’t realize is that we can stop (food insecurity), we produce more food than anybody else in the world — we don’t distribute it very well and it’s not always the best for us, but we could. So we have to think big, go in having that attitude that we’re going to make a difference.”
“Any private sector operation is probably envious of what they’ve been able to achieve here. And, to see fresh fruit and vegetables, to see those foodstuffs go to a family that may have very little money to buy them in a store, those are important things that these organizations make possible — and it’s amazing,” he said.
“We need to hear directly from people with lived experience, those who have faced hunger and nutrition insecurity or have worked on the ground in community organizations,” McGovern said. “We need to hear what works and what doesn’t work, challenges faced and where the gaps are in well-meaning policy that sometimes, quite frankly, just misses the mark.”
“It’s inspiring, the work everyone here today is doing — and we need to be the wind at their back. As I said, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to make sure we’re attaching the wheel to the right vehicle as we move forward and, these people, they’ve figured out what needs to be done and we need to build on that,” he said.