BANGOR, Maine — Doctors can write a prescription for a headache, but what do they prescribe for hunger?
Finding an answer to that question in Maine — where large numbers of children and seniors live in poverty — is why Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems applied for a Partnerships to Improve Community Health grant through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. EMHS was awarded the $4.05 million CDC grant and has used the funds to create partnerships in Maine’s seven most northern counties to increase access to food resources.
“We’ve started to ask patients: Do you have enough food? And if they don’t, we connect them with the resources to help feed their family,” Doug Michael, chief Community Health and Grants officer for EMHS, said Tuesday taking a break from the daylong Food is Medicine conference at the Cross Insurance Center. “Providers need to know where to send their patients to [for food] that is a respected and reliable and trusted source.”
Michelle Hood, president of EMHS, said the goal is to increase the number of health care providers screening patients to keep Mainers as healthy as possible and to prevent chronic illness from happening.
The CDC grant also has been used to help create new partnerships with Auburn-based Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine and Maine farmers to increase the availability of nutritious, locally grown foods, and access to programs that help people learn to better themselves.
“Hunger is a significant issue for people in Maine,” said Kristen Miale, Good Shepherd president. “Over 200,000 people, or 16 percent of Maine, has food insecurity. The impact is: One in four are children. We’re 12th in the nation for poverty, up from 22nd. We are going in the wrong direction.
“What is most alarming is that Maine ranks third in the country in very low food security,” she said later. “These are more than sad figures — they are shameful.”
Nearly 500 people from health care providers, schools and food pantries from around the state, as well as lawmakers, members of Healthy Maine Partnerships, business owners and others gathered for the conference.
The goal is to “build the network of food security” in Aroostook, Washington, Hancock, Piscataquis, Penobscot, Waldo and Somerset counties, according to Lee McWilliams, a grant consultant for EMHS.
Children and seniors make up two-thirds of the people who get food through Good Shepherd and another 16 percent are disabled, Miale said.
“Hunger impacts our most vulnerable,” she said. “People [go to Good Shepherd] because they do not earn enough to feed their families. Ninety-seven percent are working. We have a high rate of what we call under-employed. They’re incredibly hard working Mainers but still don’t make enough money to survive.”
She said when people are worried about money, they tend to skip meals or purchase high calorie foods that are low in nutrition, which can lead to poor health and chronic health problems such as diabetes and hypertension.
“We are left with the paradox of a whole generation of people who are overweight but malnourished,” Miale said. “The rich get organic, and the poor get diabetes.”
Good Shepherd increased the amount of fresh produce given out by 34 percent in the last year through partnerships with 43 farmers, she said.
The CDC grant attained through EMHS also increased access to technology at rural locations, and helped Good Shepherd to locate and secure a warehouse in Hampden so the Bangor region can benefit from the farm-to-table program, Michael said.
“We have enough food to feed everybody,” Miale said. “We can end hunger.”