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Heroes For Better

Northwestern Medicine Addresses Food Insecurity

Anticipating Needs Before They Occur

Hunger is a growing problem worldwide. In the United States alone, more than 37 million people struggled with hunger, including more than 11 million children, in 2018. And during the pandemic, the need for food assistance grew across many vulnerable groups. Northwestern Medicine responded to the call for help.

Providing Access to Nutritious Food

Access to healthy food like fruits and vegetables helps to prevent illness, mitigate chronic disease and build a healthy immune system, explains Karin Podolski, MSN, MPH, RN, director of Community Health Services at Northwestern Medicine. In her role, Podolski works closely with organizations like the DuPage County arm of Metropolitan Family Services (MFS) that help families by providing access to nutritious food, a service that became a priority during the pandemic.

Northwestern Medicine first became involved with MFS, which is located in Wheaton, in 2015 to help educate children and families about making healthy food choices. The program is specifically aimed at families with children from birth to 5 years old in MFS early learning centers.

During the programs, children enjoy breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. “I oversee those menus and try to make sure they’re nutritious but also have a healthful variety so they can try new foods,” says Maureen Lamperis, MS, RD, LDN, health and nutrition manager at MFS. “We offer education and support to the children, but also the families.”

“Part of having an ongoing relationship with our community partners allows us to anticipate needs before they arise,” explains Podolski. “When the pandemic occurred, we were ready to help organizations pivot, and reallocated resources to where they were needed most.”

Once the pandemic started, both organizations were able to quickly address the changing needs of MFS and the families they serve. Northwestern Medicine immediately distributed masks and thermometers to help ensure the safety of staff and children. Northwestern Medicine also supplied 350 food vouchers to MFS clients to purchase for fresh fruits and vegetables at any local grocery store.

“The majority of our clients receive help with food resources,” says Lamperis. “A lot of food pantries have carbohydrates, or shelf-stable items. These vouchers allowed them access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It drives home the concept we talk about all year, making a plate with fruits and vegetables.”

Helping Other Vulnerable Groups

The need for food assistance has grown across other vulnerable groups as well. Located in Wheaton, Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans (MSHV) provides housing, supportive services and community outreach to help veterans and their families who are homeless or at-risk achieve self-sufficiency. Northwestern Medicine became involved with MSHV to support its various programs and was able to respond to the changing needs of MSHV during the pandemic.

For example, MSHV has a commissary that helps provide basic needs for veterans and their families. “Normally, the veterans we serve could shop for household goods,” says Kat Gilman, MA, program officer at MSHV. “The commissary doesn’t typically provide food, but we understood it was a huge need.”

Northwestern Medicine responded to the need by providing more than 100 MSHV clients, 70 of whom are at risk of losing their homes, with food vouchers for fruits and vegetables of their choice. “We were able to get these in the hands of the people who needed them, and that’s why we chose to work with these agencies,” says Podolski. “They serve some of the most vulnerable populations.”

Providing Support in Uncharted Territory — and Beyond

Both MFS and MSHV continue to adapt to changing needs. And, both express gratitude for the ongoing support from Northwestern Medicine. “It’s a very different time and landscape in terms of fundraising and being able to cover administrative costs to run the program,” says Gilman. “So we’re thankful for the amount of support we’ve received.”

Lamperis adds a similar sentiment. “Northwestern Medicine has been so responsive and sensitive about any time we’ve needed help,” she says. “They’re always thinking a little bit beyond, and one step further, beyond my expectations. The support they’ve given us has provided a foundation for what we are trying to do for the families.”

The support is all part of the Northwestern Medicine commitment to making communities better through health and wellness initiatives.

“Beyond providing world-class care, we have a commitment to our community as a whole in terms of promoting health,” says Podolski. “We assess the needs and seek ways to address those needs.”