While a diet that includes fresh fruits and vegetables is acknowledged as being part of a healthy lifestyle, Melinda Harville knows incorporating them into their family meals isn’t easy for many south suburban residents.
They may live in a community lacking a full-line grocery store that offers such perishables, and with this economy and higher prices they might not make it into the family’s shopping cart, said Harville, who works for Advocate Health Care.
Advocate distributed bags of healthy food items Thursday to more than 100 people from a Homewood church, part of a Healthy Living Food Farmacy program meant to address not just access to food but a health equity gap in the south suburbs and Chicago’s South Side.
The food distribution, which takes place twice each month, is limited to Advocate patients being treated at its South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Trinity Hospital in Chicago’s Calumet Heights community or at Advocate clinics.
The Food Farmacy began four years ago at Trinity and was expanded in October 2021 to South Suburban, initially with 60 patients referred for health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure, according to Harville, community health team lead for the program at both hospitals.
Sabrina Gaines, of Richton Park, said she was referred by her doctor last year. She was diagnosed with prediabetes, and what Harville calls “food as medicine” has helped her.
“It’s just plain health living,” Gaines said. “I’ve lost 22 pounds.”
Volunteers from Old National Bank, working Thursday at All Nations Community Church in Homewood, assembled 300 bags of food, with each recipient getting three bags containing items including beans, stuffing, celery, oranges, mangoes, sweet potatoes, bananas and a roasting chicken, Harville said.
A donation Thursday of $15,000 from Old National, which had 35 employees packing bags at the church, will enable the Food Farmacy to expand beyond Advocate patients, she said.
The money will enable Advocate to add 25 people at the twice monthly food distributions arranged through South Suburban and Trinity, but also allow broader community food distributions at the hospitals later this month, Harville said.
One is scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 20 at South Suburban Hospital, 17800 Kedzie Ave., Hazel Crest, and from noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 21 at Trinity, 2320 E. 93rd St., Chicago.
Food will be distributed until supplies last, according to Advocate.
The genesis of the Old National donation came from Mohammed Abunada, senior vice president of health care banking who works at the bank’s Hickory Hills location and sits on the governing council of Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
Abunada, among the volunteers at the church, said he knew of the Food Farmacy program and thought Old National should contribute. The request to other supervisors was cleared in a matter of weeks, according to Sarah Kinsella, a vice president and community marketing manager for the bank.
“With food costs spiraling, achieving nutritional equity is a greater challenge than it was even a year ago,” said Bob Kelly, an Old National executive who oversees the bank’s locations on Chicago’s South Side and in the south suburbs. “Old National is proud to work with an organization that is on the front lines helping those at greatest risk from food insecurity.”
Apart from the most recent donation by Old National, the food distribution program’s funding sources include Michuda Construction, the Ackermann Foundation and Mi-Jack Products, according to Advocate Health. Advocate Health also provides funding for the community health program, which can be tapped as needed to purchase food, Harville said.
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The Advocate Health Care program also advises patients on other aspects of healthy living, including exercise, Harville said.
“We are addressing the whole person’s health and not just a part of it,” she said
Harville said Advocate acquires food from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and patients who are part of the distribution through South Suburban and Trinity are sent regular newsletters which, apart from tips on healthy living, provide a rundown of items coming up at the next distribution.
In selecting foods to be distributed, Harville said she is conscious of individual patients’ dietary needs, such as cutting down on sodium in food items for patients with high blood pressure, but is also aware that not everybody in the hospitals’ service areas eat the same.
She said that she is “culturally conscious” in the selection and distribution.
“I am addressing every nationality and being inclusive of everyone we serve,” Harville said.