It's hard to focus on healing when you're hungry or worried about feeding your family. But several SSM Health hospitals in Wisconsin are working to alleviate food concerns by sending new moms home from the hospital with an emergency supply of groceries.
Partnering with local food banks, SSM Health launched a program called Baskets of Hope. The initiative is designed to help food-insecure patients continue to heal once they get back home and to connect them with more permanent community resources.
SSM Health started the program specifically for new moms who identify as having food access challenges and is expanding it to other patients. Following a patient's discharge, an SSM Health community health worker checks in to see how they are doing and to help them establish contact with other services.
"We already were connecting our patients with resources but wanted to let them feel that in a tangible way," said Megan Timm, SSM Health regional director of community health. "We know providing emergency food is not fixing insecurity, but it does really fall within our mission of providing exceptional care and revealing the healing presence of God. And that's really a beautiful thing."
The idea came about in 2020 when members of the SSM Health regional community health team attended a summit looking at ways to address hunger. Patients arriving at SSM Health hospitals already were being screened through a series of questions that focus on food challenges, safety, and other issues. Now, if a new mom screens high for food insecurity, she is given a voucher for an on-site food closet, supported by a local food pantry partner. The voucher is good for a basket, actually a bag, of shelf-stable food she can take home when leaving the hospital. Larger families get two bags.
The program gives nurses and other staff a way to address food insecurity immediately — rather than simply sending patients out the door with a list of resources and hoping they follow up later with a food pantry, Timm said.
The response from area food pantries to the Baskets of Hope program, which first rolled out at SSM Health Monroe Hospital, has been positive, Timm added. "They jumped right in," she said. "We are so blessed and grateful. We can't do our work without them."
Marcia Voss of Green Cares Food Pantry, which delivers grocery supplies to SSM Health Monroe, said that as food insecurity returns to pre-pandemic levels, food banks are seeing more people desperate for help. Working directly with health care providers is a great way to reach those in need, she said. Voss worked with Tammie Jamiska, an SSM Health community health specialist who also volunteers at the food pantry, to develop the contents of the food bags, which include nonperishable items such as cereal, tuna, canned vegetables and beans.
Timm said the partnerships with local food pantries call to mind SSM Health's founding in 1872, when five Catholic nuns arrived in St. Louis from Germany ready to care for those suffering from smallpox and other diseases. Starting with only $5 between them, the sisters visited patients in their homes, bringing food, medicine and supplies to ease their suffering.
Five years after their arrival, the sisters opened their first hospital, St. Mary's Infirmary in St. Louis. Today, SSM Health delivers comprehensive care to communities in Missouri, Illinois, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. With more than 12,800 providers and 23 hospitals, SSM Health continues to explore new ways to invest in communities and provide a safety net to those in need.
The Baskets of Hope program has expanded to the family birth areas at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Janesville, SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital — Madison, and SSM Health St. Clare Hospital — Baraboo, with plans to expand to other hospitals and service areas in the coming months.
At SSM Health — Monroe, the program already has been extended to departments beyond family birth, necessitating the need for an additional food pantry partner. In the last year, the hospital distributed almost 300 bags of food to patients, Jamiska said.
Recently, health care workers there saw a need for bags specifically designed for patients who are unhoused. These bags contain ready-to-eat foods and cans with pop-top lids as well as essential items like hand wipes.
"We're happy that we're helping so many people in need, but also very sad, because of all of the need that's out there," Jamiska said. "But one of the things I love about SSM is we are truly trying to help our patients with their needs even outside our walls. That makes a healthier community."