The connection between nutrition and health is no mystery to medical science. While “food is medicine” applies to us all, the COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated problems of food insecurity in Colorado.
It’s why UCHealth has designated Feeding Colorado, an association of five Feeding America food banks in our state, as this year’s beneficiary of the Hit the Mitt charity. Each time a Colorado Rockies hitter bounces one off the Hit the Mitt sign in left field at Coors Field, UCHealth donates $5,000 to Feeding Colorado.
“It’s our great honor to be this year’s Hit the Mitt charity and this support comes at a pivotal moment in our work,’’ said Kim Da Silva, a board member of Feeding Colorado and executive director of Community Food Share. “The pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to hunger relief, including a surge in need among Coloradans.
“It is thanks to partners like UCHealth and the Colorado Rockies that the five Feeding Colorado food banks are able to serve every county throughout Colorado,’’ Da Silva said.
During the first months of the pandemic, about four in 10 people visiting food banks across the country were seeking help for the first time. Food banks across the United States are serving more than 55 million more people than before the pandemic began. Feeding Colorado’s five community food banks include: Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado; Community Food Share; Food Bank for Larimer County; Food Bank of the Rockies; Weld Food Bank.
Scientists have long known that unbalanced and insufficient diets can enhance the risk of obesity as well as chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, and kidney disease. Some big numbers hint at the scope of the problem. A 2017 study estimated that the average health care costs associated with those facing food insecurity were 44% higher than the costs of those who could more easily put food on the table. That difference amounted to more than $77 billion a year in the United States.
Since 2017, UCHealth’s Family Medicine Center – Fort Collins (FMC) has been distributing thousands of pounds of healthy food a week to improve the well-being of patients and others in the community. The food pantry operates as an affiliate for Food Bank for Larimer County.
“Offering a dignified shopping experience with a high-quality selection of produce, meats, dairy products, and dry goods has made such a difference in the lives of our patients and our neighborhood community,” said Dr. Kristin Andreen, the FMC’s medical director.
Addressing food insecurity in Colorado
The FMC Food Pantry launched in a clinic break room. It didn’t take long to outgrow it, says Laura Elliot, the FMC Food Pantry’s program coordinator. Suite 109 – at the time occupied by a dozen or so unoccupied office cubicles – gradually gave way to increasing numbers of shelves and refrigerators. Now it’s a supermarket of sorts, and for hundreds of families in Northern Colorado, a lifeline.
Elliot has seen the human impact of the pandemic on her clientele.
“We’ve seen spouses or children losing jobs and moving back in with family members, so not only are households themselves struggling, but they’re also taking on additional family members and feeding more mouths than before,” Elliot said. “People are still unemployed. Food insecurity needs to stay in the headlines regardless of the pandemic, but especially during the pandemic.”
The FMC Food Pantry stayed open throughout the pandemic, but some clients weren’t aware of that (the Food Pantry is open to FMC patients and others alike, but FMC patients account for about two-thirds of Food Pantry shoppers). Numbers dropped initially, but soon recovered and then grew to the point that 2020 saw a 22% increase in families served just two years earlier.
Feeding Colorado’s five food banks distributed 37% more pounds of food during the first year of the pandemic compared with the year prior.
COVID-19 brings changes to food distribution
UCHealth’s food pantry had to adjust to COVID-19. Rather than choosing their own food inside, clients now filled out shopping lists out front and gave them to FMC staff and volunteers who then did the choosing in suite 109. At the same time, with volunteering limited during the early months of the pandemic, UCHealth staff filled in as grocery runners for nearly 40 hours a week as demand rose. Now the volunteers – often including Colorado State University students – are back, and the personal shopping continues as the national vaccination drive proceeds. A COVID-19 grant enabled the hiring of a part-time employee to help with the pick-up, sorting, preparation, and delivery of food.
Twice a week, FMC staffers and volunteers pick up 1,000 pounds of produce, frozen meat, dry goods, and canned goods from the Food Bank for Larimer County’s Loveland warehouse. On Thursdays, the Food Bank delivers another 2,500 pounds of food.
That’s in addition to the weekly contributions courtesy of Sprouts Farmers Market of prepackaged meals, salads, lettuces, cut fruit, bread, and food rescue items (that is, food approaching or past what are generally conservative best-by dates). Other consistent donors include Catholic Charities, which partners with Consuelo Burritos, yielding fresh breakfast burritos; Great Harvest Bakery (bread); Rainbow Café (frozen casseroles); and The Nappie Project, which contributes 1,500 diapers a week plus occasional drops of baby food and formula.
Food drives such as UCHealth’s “Nourishing November” (nearly 2,000 pounds of nonperishable foods) and FMC Family Medicine staffer Mandi Baxter’s ONE Food drive, brought in another 1,600 pounds of nonperishable foods.
Good quality is at least as much a focus as quantity, Elliot says. The FMC Food Pantry has always emphasized fresh fruits and vegetables, and donations from the above and others as well as from Colorado State University’s Grow & Give Modern Victory Garden Project have helped bring fresh produce to clients who would otherwise lack it and its nutritional benefits. Comments from a 2020 client survey underscored the Food Pantry’s success in that dimension. Among the 114 respondents, nearly all said the Food Pantry gave them better access to healthy foods, and 76% reported eating more fruits and vegetables.
“Before FMC I didn’t buy a lot of fruits and vegetables because I could not afford them. Now I eat more of them because I can get them here. Thank you,” wrote one. “The FMC Food Pantry better serves my health with the great vegetables and fruit they serve,” said another. Added a third: “Always healthy and fresh options for the few times I have needed help!”
That same survey showed striking developments with respect to clients’ overall health and well-being: 38% said they felt their overall health had improved since shopping at the FMC Food Pantry; a quarter of respondents reported better blood-pressure numbers and cholesterol numbers; a fifth were at a healthier weight; a fifth reported better blood-sugar numbers; 84% said access to the FMC Food Pantry decreased their stress and anxiety levels; and 86% said the Food Pantry had improved their overall life satisfaction.
Making a difference for those dealing with food insecurity in Colorado
Andreen’s patients have been among the success stories, she says. One, an 82-year-old former nun, surprised Andreen when she checked the box on an FMC patient questionnaire that asked if she had trouble buying enough food to eat. The patient had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and had developed a skin infection – both exacerbated by inexpensive, carbohydrate-saturated foods, Andreen suspected. She steered the patient to the Food Pantry soon after it opened; the upgraded diet helped bring down her blood sugar levels and improve her overall health, Andreen says.
Another patient found herself having to choose between healthy food and medicine to keep her severe asthma under control. Even having made that choice, their nutrition suffered.
“She enjoys cooking and likes fresh vegetables, but as money grew tighter, she and her husband relied more and more on the cheaper, shelf-stable ‘center aisle’ items,” Andreen said. The Food Pantry has helped the patient afford the medicines she needs to keep her asthma under control and the produce she needs to cook and eat well, Andreen says.
The Food Pantry does more than stock and deliver food. Elliot and colleagues also offer clients recipe ideas and worksheets that help them track their fruit-and-vegetable intake.
“Client dignity is huge – making sure that they have the same food options as anybody else who can go to the grocery store is a big struggle for food pantries and one that we try really hard to work on,” Elliot said.
That work appears to be working.
“The people are caring, kind and supportive. I love the access to fresh foods that are so expensive otherwise,” a client wrote on that survey. “My kids also benefit from having lots of variety too. The food pantry is a huge blessing to our family. Thank you!”
The pantry is located at 1025 Pennock Place, Suite 109, Fort Collins, and is open to patients and nonpatients. For hours and other information, call (970) 495-8946 or email Laura.Elliot@uchealth.org. To donate, visit here.