By COLLEEN SCHRAPPEN
Almost half of public school students in Indiana, 47 percent, qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, according to the state's education department.
That means those students receive through the National School Lunch Program at least one nutritionally balanced meal each day, and often two, Monday through Friday. But that leaves two days during which some of those children may not have enough to eat.
It's a problem that was on the minds of staff at St. Vincent Indiana after 17 of the system's hospitals mapped unmet health care needs in their respective service areas. Every three years, as part of an Affordable Care Act mandate, each nonprofit hospital completes a community health needs assessment to identify gaps in factors that contribute to a community's health status. The hospitals must prioritize health needs and develop implementation strategies to address them. Food insecurity was an oft-cited concern when St. Vincent Indiana hospitals surveyed their community members in the most recent assessment.
Food insecurity refers to lack of access, at times, to enough nutritious food for all members of a household. The nonprofit organization Feeding America estimates about 15 percent of Indiana residents are food insecure. (That percentage is comparable to the national average.)
"Each hospital identified its top five most pressing needs," said Stephanie Uliana, a community development liaison for the Community Development & Health Improvement department at St. Vincent. "At the corporate level, that was narrowed to the top three. One of those categories was exercise, nutrition and weight.
A community development department team evaluated programs, looking for something that the 17 hospitals could participate in, that was evidence-based, and that could produce measurable results. Providing food assistance for families who might not otherwise have enough to eat on the weekends met the bill.
Each hospital would partner with a nearby school to start, strengthen or grow a nutrition program that supplements food for needy families at the end of each school week. (Uliana said a few of the hospitals also will assist with summer programs that provide supplemental food to families, but that is outside of the core weekend feeding program.)
Many school districts in Indiana already have weekend supplemental food programs in place; only two hospitals will be working with a school to start a weekend feeding program from scratch.
Volunteers from St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital and St. Vincent Women's Hospital help fill food bags at the Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis. All 17 of the St. Vincent Indianapolis system hospitals are supporting programs to provide extra food for the weekend to low-income households with children, who are at risk of not having enough to eat.
"It's certainly not a new thing," Uliana said of the food programs, commonly known as backpack food programs because a child brings home the bag of food from school. "We want to give kudos to those who have been doing this so long. We want to strengthen those programs and survey and see if it's making a difference."
Each hospital will determine the extent of its involvement — whether it's donating money or other resources to allow for more students to participate, or freeing employees on work time to fill bags at schools, hospitals, food distribution centers or other sites. Smaller, rural hospitals are contributing food or supplies so students won't need to be waitlisted for the supplemental food program. One hospital is trying to make sure there always is fresh produce included in the provisions distributed by the school it is working with.
"There's room to be creative," Uliana said.
The St. Vincent program, which began last July 1 and is still in the planning year of a three-year process, has gotten off to a quick start at a few of the hospitals.
By the end of March, St. Vincent facilities had contributed 484 associate hours and over $44,000 in money and resources to the initiative, said Renee Stratton, the data analyst for the Community Development & Health Improvement department. "It's a true demonstration of how much administrators support the project."
On July 1, the program will launch officially, with all the hospitals actively engaged with a weekend feeding program. At the start of the school year, families with a child in a weekend feeding program will receive a six-question food security survey developed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The confidential, multiple-choice survey asks parents whether they can afford enough food for the month, whether the food is nutritionally balanced, or whether family members have to skip meals, or eat less, because the family can't afford more food.
Said Stratton, "After the first survey, we'll do a preliminary data analysis." Then surveys will be given at the end of the 2017-18 school year, and again at the beginning and end of the 2018-19 school year. The goal is to reduce by 5 percent the number of families in the weekend feeding program that report being food insecure.
"We're hoping that the survey results will show that in addition to providing immediate food relief, participation in a weekend feeding program makes families feel more food secure," Stratton said.
In all, about 1,500 students are expected to be referred by the schools and take part in one of the weekend feeding programs that are being measured by St. Vincent. Most of those students are at the elementary level, though one intermediate school (grades 4 to 6) and one high school are participating.
In addition to fighting hunger, the program is meant to be a way for hospitals to strengthen their ties to the community, said Kelly Peisker, a community development liaison at St. Vincent.
"We really understand and want to form relationships and partnerships to work on this together," she said. "You need your administration to support and stand behind it. We are getting the support of our leadership for the program."
And the program fits the diverse needs of the St. Vincent hospitals. "We had to have a program that was scalable to each of our ministries, no matter the size," said Peisker.
"You focus on the needs in your community and try to make a difference," Peisker said.
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