Linking Health Systems and Food Systems to Better Serve Communities

A recent All In: Data for Community Health webinar featured multi-sector collaborations in Houston and Dallas, led by partnerships between health systems and local food banks. Together these efforts are demonstrating how addressing food security can have benefits for the healthcare sector and the community as a whole. By forming community partnerships and data systems linking social service providers, food banks, hospitals/health systems, and other sectors, these projects are fostering environments that improve food access and ultimately lead to better health outcomes and lower costs.

Yolande Pengetnze and Stephanie Fenniri of the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation, a lead on the Dallas Food for Health project, shared how they are working to leverage the Dallas Information Exchange Portal to exchange data between Parkland Health and Hospital System and select partner agencies of the North Texas Food Bank to improve the diet and nutrition of patients who experience food insecurity and have also been diagnosed with chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Regi Young, Marcita Galindez, and Katherine Lindholm of the Harris County BUILD Health Partnership described North Pasadena’s Sustainable Food System project, which is launching new programs including a food prescription program (“FRx”) to provide community members with food vouchers for fresh produce when they visit health clinics, supporting access to healthier options.

Below are some of the key takeaways they shared to launch similar efforts to initiate and strengthen win-win partnerships between health systems, food banks, and community residents.

1. Foster strong buy-in towards a shared mission

Young emphasized that when the Harris County BUILD Health Partnership was formed, every partner had a different reason to come to the table, but they were able to identify ways to work together towards a shared mission, keeping the clients’ needs front and center. He stated, “This collaborative work among organizations with a shared interest is a necessary tool to effect large-scale change.” Young said that although organizational capacity to implement the program was an important factor, each partner’s demonstration of a strong commitment and buy-in to integrate the program into their work processes was paramount.

2. Listen to the needs of the community

Presenters noted that responding to input from the community was key to successful project implementation For example, Fenniri recalled that the effort to identify and recruit patients to participate in the Dallas Food for Health project was originally led by the health system was not successful. Once they worked with the participating food banks to lead recruitment, they realized individuals in the program were more comfortable and accustomed to discussing social needs. This led them to modify their approach to leverage trusted relationships with community providers to share information with participants.

3. Meet community-based organizations where they are

When implementing any new program or technology platform, it’s important to assess each organization’s stage of readiness from the beginning . When Galindez worked with four partner clinics in Harris County to integrate the food prescription program into their workflow, she noted that each had different resources, capacity, and constraints. She met with each clinic and their staff individually to understand their perspectives and see how the program could be tailored to fit into their current workflow without adding extra burden.

4. Be flexible and responsive when implementing new workflows

While training partners to implement DASH Food for Health, Dr. Pengetnze described how PCCI used the bottom-up process of “collaborative workflow design,” meeting with partner agencies (food banks) regularly on an ongoing basis adjust their processes to adapt to the practical needs the staff of each particular organization. While it was challenging to remain flexible to organizations of varying capacities, they found that starting with the early adapters encouraged those with less capacity to come on board as they saw those organizations reap the benefits from the program.

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