Food and Healthcare Sectors Collaborating for Healthy Communities

Friday, October 23, 2015

Put together a food access activist with an insurance company representative and get them talking about how to forge collaborations between food and healthcare sectors.

The result will be a complex and invigorating conversation.

At least, that's what we found at "Exploring Innovations: Health Systems and Community Food Systems Collaborating to Create Healthy Communities," the special one-day event organized by the Ecology Center's Sustainable Food, Health Communities program last week with support from Detroit Food and Fitness Collaborative.

More than fifty people were in attendance, representing an incredible range of sectors and stakeholders - non-profit organizations, hospitals, policymakers, health clinics, funders, food system advocates and entrepreneurs, health insurance providers, and the public health sector.

The morning started with presentations about the state of health care sector and food systems both nationally and specifically in Detroit, and the afternoon was dedicated to solutions, starting with a panel discussion about exciting food and health collaborative initiatives coming out of Detroit, like Eastern Market's Detroit Community Markets program; Fresh PrescriptionDetroit's network of fruit and vegetable prescriptions; and the local and sustainable food purchasing initiatives in hospitals. 

In breakout sessions, there was clear excitement about the ideas and programs discussed. In particular, stakeholders talked about how to duplicate fruit and vegetable prescription programs across our metro area, leading right into the next panel discussion, where we shifted to talk about models for funding and long-term sustainability. 

For example, Eastern Market's Community Markets program works with an innovative solution that offers wellness programs to corporations in exchange for funds to support farm stands in more neighborhoods across the city. 

Skye Cornell, the Vice President of Programs at Wholesome Wave spoke about her organization's work implementing fruit and vegetable prescription programs in communities nationwide, and a number of potentially promising pathways to institutionalizing these programs with more sustainable funding models such as finding existing medical billing codes to cover services associated with this programming (like nutrition education, counseling and more) that have sprung out of this work and related investigation. Jennifer Obadia, New England-based Coordinator for Health Care Without Harm's Healthy Food in Health Care program, spoke about the particulars and potential opportunity to leverage non-profit hospitals' community benefit requirements to support collaborative programs that address community health needs like Fresh Prescription, which move into a new health paradigm.

Then the real discussion began: Could these models work in Detroit? What about other communities in the Metro Area? How do we balance continuing to grow, nurture, strengthen and refine the great programming on the ground while advocating for and working to secure the long-term viability of these and other related efforts?

That's where the value of bringing different sectors and stakeholders together really became clear. The beauty of these issues is that everyone eats and everyone has a stake in health.  It will take the entire community, and participation from each and every sector to orchestrate these collaborative programs and work toward integrating them into the fabric of our communities.  That much was clear from each of the successful models shared: they all required commitment and coordination.

When it comes down to it, everyone is interested in engaging and contributing to finding sustainable solutions that promote equity, community engagement, and health. What we found was that each sector or stakeholder was a part of conversations considering similar topics and concerns - each in their own terms and 'language', but more often than not in a silo of some sort. The truth is, one group or sector cannot do it alone and there will not be a single solution or answer.

And collaborators cannot just include the usual suspects - it is multi-sector, private-public partnerships and initiatives that hold great promise. The insurance payer in the room said that no matter how great a program is for a community, when it comes back to the business side of things the request is always: show me the numbers. And with that came a clear directive: gather the data, ask the right questions, and show me the health outcomes related to the innovative food work happening in our communities. Evidence for many of these programs and outcomes is growing - but the key here was are we asking the questions and gathering the data to make a compelling case for health insurers to support this work? The only way to know is to work together in developing a plan.

And this event was aimed at establishing a foundation to do just that - generating cross-sector conversation, buy-in, and commitments to work collaboratively toward sustainable solutions.

Thanks to all of our panel speakers, attendees and generous supporters of this work. We're very excited to build off of the conversations and see what comes next. 


Published on October 23, 2015