More than medicine: Clinic addresses food insecurity with free produce, meals for patients

“Health equity is about everyone having the opportunity to reach optimal health,” said Dr. Wendy Slusser, a pediatrician who volunteers her time and expertise at Venice Family Clinic. “Food is a big part of that.”

Slusser, who has been named one of our 50 Visionaries for building the Clinic’s pediatrics residency program, spoke on a panel February 24, 2020, at public radio station KCRW’s offices about how food and the environment affect health. The event, Food + Social Justice, was part of a series of special events celebrating the Clinic’s 50th anniversary.

The panel was moderated by Evan Kleiman, a chef and host of Good Food on KCRW. Other panelists included Amy Rowat, Slusser’s colleague at the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA who pioneered the use of food in teaching scientific concepts, and Rick Nahmias, founder and executive director of Food Forward.

“There’s a triple goal for society when it comes to health: planet health, community health, and individual health,” Slusser said. “At Venice Family Clinic, we look at the whole person and how those ideas intersect.” She said the Clinic, which understands that external factors drive 50% of health outcomes, strives to take into account the living conditions of its patients, including where they’re living, what they’re eating, and how they’re preparing their food.

For example, Slusser pointed out that more people, including her patients, have been moving in together to save money, which means that they don’t necessarily have access to a full kitchen or refrigerator, relying on hot plates or coolers instead. This living situation affects the kinds of foods a person can store and prepare.

Leveling the playing field

To address situations like this, we recently launched a number of initiatives designed to help our patients eat more nutritious food, thanks to grants from Health Net and Anthem Blue Cross. At our food markets, we give away free fruits and vegetables to our patients who may otherwise not have fresh produce in their diets. Most of our patients, 75% of whom live below the federal poverty line, struggle to pay for necessities, such as food, housing, and transportation. Venice Family Clinic already makes it easier for patients to get medical and health care, including low- or no-cost prescription medication, so providing free fresh foods was the next logical step. This past year we distributed 8,500 pounds of food to 690 patients. These food giveaways are open to all Clinic patients, though our providers specifically refer individuals and families at risk for diabetes and hypertension.

We also started Kitchen in a Bag classes, where patients learn how to make hearty, healthful, and delicious meals using a slow cooker. This class addresses the situation Slusser mentioned at the February 24 event and is aimed at patients who have limited or no access to a kitchen. A Clinic health educator shows patients how to make a one-pot meal, and patients get to take home the same ingredients as well as a slow cooker to immediately put this lesson into practice.

Food as medicine

This year we’re building on our food security efforts by developing a food pharmacy program. The idea is to treat food as medicine for patients whose conditions could be improved with changes in diet. We’re starting with our patients who participate in our diabetes group visits, a 12-week series of classes led by a health care provider and a health educator. During the group meetings, patients have an appointment with a provider in addition to learning the basics of diabetes, nutrition, exercise, and how to set realistic goals and stay healthy. We also include a basic cooking demonstration using foods that patients then take home with them to make their own healthy meals.

The goal is to pilot the food pharmacy with our diabetes patients so we can later expand the program to more patients, with maternal-child health as our next priority. We’re partnering with Food Forward to source the food we’ll be giving our patients, as well as including wraparound services as needed, such as helping patients enroll in CalFresh or giving them access to a nutritionist and soon a dietician.

Beyond primary care

The food pharmacy is housed within our Health Education department, which offers a robust program of nutrition, cooking, and exercise classes, as well as instruction on how to manage conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. In this past year alone, Venice Family Clinic held nearly 6,400 individual health education visits, and almost 2,300 patients took part in cooking demonstrations.

Our Marcia’s Teaching Kitchen at the Lou Colen Children’s Health and Wellness Center serves as a gathering place for patients who are interested in learning how to prepare healthful foods. Located in the clinic’s waiting area, volunteers and UCLA medical students hold weekly hands-on cooking demonstrations with families to show parents and kids easy-to-make recipes that are also good for them.

We also offer free meals and regular food distribution through our Common Ground program, where we focus on preventing HIV and helping connect clients to treatment. The food engages patients, making them more likely to get their medical care, as well as fosters a sense of community and social connection to others in a similar situation. Last year more than 460 patients used the Common Ground food bank or attended its meal events.

One of our patients who has attended our free food giveaways is a retiree who relies on a pension to pay her bills. She and other retirees she knows on fixed incomes often don’t have enough money to last them through the end of the month and will sometimes share food to get by.

“The money that you have saved me is going to other costs that I have, making it a little easier this month, knowing that I now have food for several days,” she said. “A little bag of food really goes a long way.”