When the pandemic began to roll through Virginia in 2020, job loss, illness and quarantines limited the ability of many people to fill their refrigerators and pantries at home. To compound that situation, with school out, many children weren’t receiving the meals they normally would get in an in-person school setting. In fact, about 450,000 students in Virginia rely on free or reduced-price meals during the school day.
As a result, the share of people experiencing hunger and food insecurity in Virginia rose from about 10% in February 2020 to 22% in June 2020, according to the Federation of Virginia Food Banks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
“When COVID hit, we noticed quickly that a lot of people needed food,” recalls Jackie Martin, director of community benefit for Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital. “The Local Food Hub worked quickly with us to help solve this problem.”
Fresh Produce, Healthy Options
The Local Food Hub works with Virginia farmers to bring fresh food to the tables of Virginians. For the past five years, the organization has worked with Martin and her team—Seirra Winn, Diana Webb and Setour Dillard—at the Sentara Starr Hill Health Center to provide free, fresh produce to patients.
During the growing season, the Local Food Hub usually delivers 100 fresh-produce bags to the clinic for distribution every Wednesday. Fifty of those bags would go to patients, while clients of other Jefferson School City Center tenants would receive the remaining 50 bags.
During the early stages of the pandemic, the Starr Hill clinic team began running out of bags, so the Local Food Hub quickly increased distribution to 220 bags to help satisfy needs.
“We are currently distributing bags every other week and have yet to see a decrease in need,” Martin explains.
Food Bank Partnership
Last July, Sentara Healthcare, Optima Health, Truist, the commonwealth of Virginia and the Federation of Virginia Food Banks joined forces to provide free food boxes statewide. The 20-pound We Care boxes were filled with a five-day supply of heart-healthy, low-sodium, shelf-stable items, including cereal, rice, and canned vegetables and fruit.
Sentara gave $500,000 to the $2.6 million We Care initiative—but the commitment didn’t stop with donating funds.
“We engaged staff to help pack those boxes, since it was a Sentara partnership,” explains Patra Reed, Blue Ridge regional director of integrated care management and Sentara RMH Medical Center director of community health services. “Our senior leadership teams from Sentara RMH and Sentara Martha Jefferson, along with a group of staff nurses, helped pack boxes at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.”
Both Sentara Martha Jefferson and Sentara RMH also received We Care boxes from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank to distribute to patients in need.
To see how they could assist hospital patients who needed help obtaining food, coordinators at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank contacted the RMH Foundation. Sentara RMH developed a program to provide identified patients with a box weighing up to 20 pounds and containing staple foods like peanut butter, kidney beans, long-grain rice, navy beans, dried fruit, shredded wheat and vegetable soup.
To reach patients needing assistance, staff provided boxes at the Sentara RMH Emergency Department, Cancer Center and physician practices, as well as through the Continuum Case Management program, which visits patients at home.
Case managers identified patients who would have difficulty purchasing food due to COVID-related circumstances, including:
- Patients waiting for COVID test results
- COVID-positive patients quarantining at home
- Patients discharged from the hospital after being treated for COVID
- Any patient discharged for whom food access was difficult, due to COVID-related reasons
“Many of our elderly patients being discharged didn’t feel comfortable going to the grocery store or even going out in public, whether they were being treated for COVID or any other condition,” recalls Reed. “The boxes provided them with some much-needed supplies to help get them through a tough time.”
Taking Boxes to the Community
To reach out directly to the community, Martin and her team at Sentara Martha Jefferson decided to deliver We Care boxes to people in their neighborhoods.
“We selected specific sites, and the Blue Ridge Food Bank worked with us to expand our food access program,” Martin says. “Beginning in February 2021, our team began distributing food boxes either directly to recipients or by giving them to community leaders for distribution, recognizing that people might be more comfortable accessing the food from people they know.”
Another strategy Sentara Martha Jefferson used to get We Care food boxes out to the community was to have them available at vaccine events.
“What I liked about this program is that we didn’t have to ask people for a lot of personal information,” Martin explains. “The Food Bank only required the ages of people in their households—no names. You shouldn’t have to give your life story to get a box of food.”
In 2021, Sentara Martha Jefferson and Sentara RMH will continue to provide food boxes to patients and families, as needed, and will partner closely with local food pantries to assess ongoing needs.
“We knew that a lot of people were food insecure before the pandemic, but COVID really made us see the need,” Martin says. “The food boxes have been so helpful.”
Sentara Cares: A Multifaceted Approach to Improving Community Health
The overall health of a community requires more than access to health care. The Sentara Cares program is a comprehensive approach to addressing the key aspects that determine overall community health.
The program focuses on five pillars:
- Community engagement
- Skilled careers
- Food security
- Behavioral health
Sentara Healthcare has consistently recognized its role in corporate social responsibility, and the Sentara Cares program creates a formula that can be applied systemwide.
“Sentara, historically, has been very philanthropic with multiple partners, but the goal here was to be more strategic about improving the health of the population at large, versus focusing on individual programs in each of our regions,” says Sherry Norquist, director of corporate social responsibility for Sentara.
Every three years, Sentara hospitals are required to submit a community health needs assessment that identifies and suggests ways to improve health, including what’s known as the social determinants of health: the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship and age. Sentara Cares builds on these assessments.
“Beyond providing traditional health care, Sentara is addressing many of our communities’needs, especially those needs that cannot necessarily be treated inside the walls of the healthcare facility,” Norquist explains.“Creating healthier communities requires finding solutions that address health where it starts—at home.”