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Rodina Iacovicci of the Gary Health Dept. moderates a breakout session

Methodist Hospitals wants to tackle food deserts in Lake County

Contributed By:The 411 News

2020-22 action plan prioritizes access to food, affordable food, and food safety in Gary

'What can we do about food disparities in Lake County?' was the question The Methodist Hospitals put to its partners at the recent breakfast meeting of the Northwest Indiana Health Disparities Council.

The discussion was not about hunger. It was about access to food, affordable food, and food safety that Methodist brought to the table. And it was about the communities, not just individuals, in the hospitals’ service area that have few grocery stores, high food prices, and food sources that don't satisfy nutrition requirements.

Those 3 factors are not the only reasons why the hospital made food disparities as the first priority in its 2020-22 action plan. When combined with other social and economic indicators like poverty and lack of transportation, they signal that residents in those communities have fewer choices and chances for a desirable health status than other communities Methodist serves in Lake and Porter counties.

Under the IRS section of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, tax-exempt hospitals are required to perform a Community Health Needs Assessment every 3 years. Methodist Hospitals, one of the anchor hospitals in the Health Disparities Council, released its assessment in December. Community Health Systems and Franciscan Alliance are also members of the council.

Community health centers, social service agencies, universities, and other health professionals and providers are council members.

The Methodist CHNA examined the population, race, income, education and employment characteristics of the community it serves in northwest Indiana. The hospital is also required to create action plans to close barriers and reduce gaps in service using available hospital staff and resources.

The assessment pinpointed Gary as having critical food disparities. Other priorities identified across their service area for 2020-22 are homelessness and poverty; child neglect and abuse; assault, violent crime, and domestic abuse; aging and older adult needs; and chronic disease. The priorities form the basis for Methodist Hospitals' Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP).

Gary has the highest proportion of children 18 and under and the highest proportion of those 65 and over in Lake County. It has the highest rate of poverty and the lowest medium income. Half of Gary households have a yearly income of less than $29,293. In the remainder of Lake County, the household median income is $52,559.

The assessment indicated the reason Gary has a shortage of healthcare professionals and providers is because of its low-income designation. That designation also affects why Gary can't get a Whole Foods and more full-service groceries, said Dr. Roland Walker, a council member. "They say they can't make a profit here."

Council members got a chance during a breakout session to discuss the issue and what part they could play in reducing food disparities. Out of the session came concerns that residents from the affected areas were not in the room to talk about the plan.

Anna Schoon from NWI Community Action moderated one of the breakout sessions. "We want to make sure more people from the community are included to talk about solutions, not just a room full of health professionals talking about solutions." It was a sentiment echoed in all breakout groups.

Suggestions from council members included creating education and communication platforms, expanding and supporting urban farms and gardeners, and even trying to bring in more grocery stores.

"We should engage managed care entities to provide resources, because they want to keep individuals healthy. They should be made accountable because they're making money off of them," came from the session moderated by Rodina Iacovicci, of the Gary Health Dept.

The assessment included Lake County’s Food Environment Index. There were increases in the number of low-income households, households with children, and households of ages 65-plus that didn’t live close to a grocery store. The county also saw an increase of households without cars that had low access to grocery stores.

According to the assessment, "The Gary community faces some particular challenges and the health needs of its residents may differ from residents of other Lake County communities. Therefore, demographics of the Gary community as well as the responses of Gary residents to the community survey will be broken out from the remainder of Lake County, and the top health needs of the Gary community will form a primary focus of the priorities and action plan."

The community survey asked residents to prioritize the top 5 community health issues needing attention.

For Gary residents, the top five health concerns were: 1. Food access, affordability and safety; 2. Substance use or abuse; 3. Assault, violent crime and domestic abuse; 4. Poverty; and 5. Homelessness

For residents of the remaining Lake County communities, the top five health concerns were: 1. Chronic disease and Obesity (tie); 2. Aging and older adult needs; 3. Substance use or abuse; and 4. Mental health.

The survey also asked residents to rate health services in importance, which health services they would like to see have more resource allocations, and what health care services they had received.

Story Posted:01/25/2020

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