When Food is Medicine

CHOP Food Pharmacy Manager Iliana Garcia shows Brooke and her 4-year-old son Ronald some of the available fresh food.

Helping families by providing education and healthy food

After 14 years of doctor and specialist visits with her four kids, Brooke thought she had heard it all. But at a recent appointment with two of her children at the Healthy Weight Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, a clinician asked her something unexpected: Did the family have enough food to eat at home?

Timidly, Brooke admitted it was hard to ensure the family of six always had enough healthy food. Because of multiple food allergies in the family, they had to make most of their meals from scratch. Fresh fruits and vegetables and other natural foods cost more and were often difficult to get in their neighborhood.

“That’s when they told us about the Food Pharmacy,” Brooke says. “We got to pick out healthy foods — apples, cauliflower, milk, canned veggies and fruit — and went home with two bags for our family.”

Impact of food insecurity

One in five people in Philadelphia experiences food insecurity. That means they don’t consistently have access to enough food to support an active and healthy lifestyle, says Saba Khan, MBBS, FAAP, an attending physician in the Healthy Weight Program and Director of CHOP’s newly opened Food Pharmacy.

“At the Healthy Weight Program, a cornerstone of our care is highlighting the importance of good, nutritious food for all health outcomes,” Khan says. “If you don’t have access to fresh, nutritious food or the financial health to afford it, all you have left is an inexpensive, high-fat, high-caloric diet that puts you at greater risk of obesity, diabetes and hypertension.”

When Food is Medicine Garcia teaches Michael, 11, how to read a food label. Opened in fall 2018, the Food Pharmacy was made possible in part by a generous donation from GIANT Food Stores, whose longtime support has helped fund numerous CHOP programs that further community health. The Food Pharmacy is expected to assist about 250 families each year in its current West Philadelphia location, but leaders hope additional contributors will step forward with support to expand this vital program.

Every family that comes to the Healthy Weight Clinic is screened for food insecurity. If the family says they are consistently hungry or struggling to put nutritious food on the table, clinicians tell them about the Food Pharmacy — located on-site — and introduce them to manager Iliana Garcia, who then meets with the family privately.

How the Food Pharmacy Works

Families can receive help in multiple ways. The Food Pharmacy:

  • Provides families with a three-day supply of healthy food
  • Connects families to community resources to address their long-term food needs
  • Provides support and education to help families eat healthily on a budget

Each item has been carefully chosen by the Healthy Weight Program’s registered dieticians. Staples like milk, tuna, tofu, and canned fruits and vegetables are available year-round, but fresh foods change depending on the season.

“Families can customize their food bags depending on their allergies and what they like,” Garcia says. “But we encourage them to try new foods and provide recipes to incorporate healthy foods into their diets.” The goal is to make it easy for families to prepare dietician-approved recipes such as veggie tacos, cauliflower Alfredo or tofu nuggets.

Families head to a room with tall cabinets and industrial refrigerators to gather the items they’ve selected. Spinach, yogurt, and cans of tuna, pineapple, diced tomatoes and black beans might end up in the bag.

Also available are links to services such as BenePhilly to help with enrollment in nutrition benefit programs, insurance, disability and heating costs; Philabundance’s fresh food sites; and instructions on using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to obtain discounts on food and family activities. All Food Pharmacy participants are referred to the on-site social worker who can assess and address any social service needs.

Healthy living for all

Families have reacted positively. “It’s a good program and I will definitely use it again,” Brooke says. What she appreciated most was that it was “personalized to meet my family’s needs,” she says. “It was also a great way to introduce new foods to my family.”

“The Food Pharmacy is a step toward us acknowledging in a non-stigmatizing way that we are with families for the long haul — that we do care,” Khan says. “Communities are beginning to see hospitals not just as a place where physical health matters, but a place that cares about individuals, families and communities, and is working toward a better life for all.”