Springfield doctor comes up with health care help for people with food insecurity

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. Working at the Family Medical Care Center at Cox North, Dr. Karissa Merritt started asking her patients about more than just their health problems.

"While that conversations going on she's finding out about food insecurity which is a terrible problem in our community," explained Tom Faulkner, the Director of Crosslines Community Resource Center who works with Merritt on the project. "There's one-in-seven people who are food insecure in Greene County."

"Everyone's health care needs are different," said Merritt. "For some people that's food. For some people that's surgery."

Merritt would screen her patients with a series of questions about not having enough to eat or knowing where their next meal was coming from.

"The questions are have you ever run out of food before you had money to buy more food or were you ever worried that the food that you had wouldn't last long enough until you had money to buy more?" Merritt said.

If the patient answered yes, Merritt would write them a prescription to get food at Crosslines or the Springfield Community Gardens....and not just any food, healthy food because she found that people who don't have enough to eat have a much higher chance of having other chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart problems.

"We know our patients who struggle more are sicker," she said. "If they truly don't know if they're going to have a roof over their head or food in their children's stomachs, they're not on-board with their health care and as physicians we owe our patients so much more than just filling their prescriptions."

Thanks to Merritt's initiative doctors all across the CoxHealth system can now diagnose patients with food insecurity which has not been a common practice in the past.

"Having that conversation with people and asking those questions is pretty revolutionary in medicine," Merritt said. "That's something we don't do a good job of doing. We can talk to them about all sorts of stuff, weird rashes, things about their genitals. But if you ask someone, 'Hey, are you too poor to afford food?' that's too far."

The hope is to expand the program in the future.

"How about a food pharmacy that's in a hospital," Faulkner said.

Maybe a revolutionary idea, but an eye-opening one as well.

"This is one of the most humbling things I've ever been a part of just to meet people where they're at," Merritt said. "Food, water, shelter right? That's the very basic human needs. If those aren't met then we're doing everything wrong."

"It's a door we haven't opened yet because we were maybe scared in some ways to open that door and see what's behind it," Faulkner added. "I'm impressed that she's taken on such a big task to open it and see what are the big food insecurity issues going on and how is that relating to health care in our community."

In addition to providing access to healthy food, the program also provides dietitians to educate patients on how to choose healthy foods.