Dr. Hans Kersten, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children, has been asking the parents of patients if they’ve had enough money to buy food for the family in the last year.
“Ten years ago if I asked this question, and someone said they were hungry, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Kersten said.
There’s a stigma attached to hunger, and people are afraid to talk about the issue — or don’t quite understand what hunger has to do with their child’s health.
“We’ve had people come up later and say, ‘Yeah, we are really struggling,'” Kersten said.
Kersten now gives parents a “prescription” to relieve hunger — FreshRx, a coupon for already discounted fresh produce sold right at the hospital.
It’s also an opening to talk about the role of food as medicine and healthy eating habits.
The St. Christopher’s Foundation for Children operates the Farm to Families program which sells discounted boxes of fruits and vegetables each week. About 1,500 families participated in the last year.
The reimbursement rate for the “prescription” is about 30 percent, said program director Jamiliyah Foster. That’s about the same rate of redemption for a medical prescription.
While everyone gets hungry, Foster said her nonprofit is working to end food insecurity, which means not having the food you need for a healthy life.
“It also could be that you do have access to food, but you do not have access to nutritious and healthy food,” Foster said. “So while you are not starving for food, you are starving for nutrition. So we consider that food insecurity as well.”
Foster says trying to change the way people eat can ding the sometimes touchy tendons of entrenched culture and family history. FreshRx is a conversation start that prompts families to talk to a doctor they already know and trust, she said.
Food insecurity is also a health problem. Young kids who are food insecure are more likely to catch colds and be hospitalized, Kersten said.
The Farm to Families program has pickup locations each week at the hospital and the New Kensington Community Development Center. Clients make a reservation for a box of food in advance each week.
The hospital also has an in-house legal team that helps families untangle red tape or other barriers to food stamps or supplemental nutrition benefits for women, infants and children.