TAMC and ACAP partner to fight Aroostook County food insecurity

Release Date: 08/07/2017

Aroostook County Two local agencies are working together to tackle the challenge of food insecurity in The County by finding ways to reach out to vulnerable citizens who may not be aware of all of the programs that exist to help alleviate their situation.

Since May 2016, through a collaboration of Aroostook County Action Program (ACAP) and The Aroostook Medical Center (TAMC), TAMC implemented a new “Screen and Intervene” initiative in the intake screening process, first at Aroostook Pediatrics, and more recently also at the hospital’s primary care and women's health offices. As part of the initial intake, patients are asked two questions that evaluate if a person has run out of food or has struggled with the ability to purchase food in the last twelve months. If the answer to either question is ‘yes,’ then patients receive a packet of information on available programs and a referral to ACAP Case Manager Heidi Rackliffe, LSW, who will work with the customer on building food security in his or her home.

"One thing I hear from medical providers all the time is that they worry if they ask a question and the answer is yes, what do they do if no services are available? This process gives them a place to send people for help," added Rackliffe.

The program, supported through funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (EMHS) and the Partnerships to Improve Community Health (PICH), is working, according to ACAP Community Education Specialist Dawn Roberts.

“ACAP is excited that people are being screened and referred to Case Management services through TAMC’s outpatient clinics, because these are the clients that we are here to serve and make their lives better with our services and programs,” said Roberts.
From the time TAMC began asking the food insecurity questions to the end of June 2017, 6,264 patients have received screening. Out of those, 160 people responded in the affirmative to one or more of the questions. Those 160 people each received a Pathfinder Guide that leads patients to local resources, a Food Resource handout that directs people to free food in the area, and a referral card to ACAP Case Management. As of the end of June, 33 people followed through with contacting ACAP to receive case management services.
“As we have begun our efforts to screen our patients in TAMC Primary Care, we cannot know the patient’s status for having enough food at home. We have been amazed at the high level of responses we have had that confirm Food Insecurity is indeed here in Aroostook County and with the patients we serve,” said Vi Belanger, practice manager for Family Practice and Internal Medicine. “We ask these very important questions one patient at a time and look to make a difference for improved healthcare.”
Families facing food insecurity cope using a variety of methods to stretch their food dollars, but those methods are not always the healthiest options. Families might decrease the amount of food they purchase and just eat less, or they purchase lower quality food that lacks nutrients and has fewer, if any fruits and vegetables. In fact, 79 percent of households report choosing food that is filling but not nutritious, and that may actually contribute to obesity and poor health. Purchasing inexpensive, unhealthy food just to have enough to feed the family is a dangerous practice, according to Roberts. Many of the most common chronic health conditions are diet-related, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Type 2 diabetes, and may be prevented or improved by eating better quality foods.
“Food insecurity is often an issue that people have embarrassment about, they keep it a secret thinking that is only them when in actuality 200,000 Mainers are food insecure and this includes 1 in 4 children,” said Roberts.
“Having healthy meals has a direct impact on the continued health of our patients,” added Belanger. “We have been very pleased to be able to provide resources to our patients when they answer yes and have a process in place for them to receive help.”
After updating the electronic medical record (EMR) at the TAMC sites to include the two-question food insecurity screen, members of the staff were educated about the questions and the informational materials. Materials were placed at each clinic site for distribution as needed. Linking services between ACAP and TAMC has enabled the hospital to have a clear path to refer patients in need when a food insecurity issue arises.

“Having ACAP to refer our patients to has been an invaluable resource. Many patients have been found to have needs beyond food insecurity such as shelter, jobs, transportation, child care and heating,” said Belanger.
In fact, when a family is facing food insecurity, there are often many factors contributing to the problem and case management services can help with all of these. In addition to helping families with access to food, the case management services at ACAP also include direction to other important programs that families may find helpful, including heating assistance, jobs, housing, childcare, health insurance assistance and more.

“This collaborative effort has shown how well a clinical environment can work together with a non-clinical one to help the people of Aroostook County identify and solve a problem that affects so many of our friends and neighbors in Aroostook County,” said Roberts.

This Screen and Intervene project has been a success due to the collaboration of the two entities involved and proves to be a benefit for both the hospital and the Community Action Agency by linking the people in need to the services already provided. Working together can improve the life of the clients served at both facilities and truly "Make Life Better" for the citizens of Aroostook County.
ACAP is celebrating 45 Years of Making Life Better in Aroostook County! ACAP provides the people of Aroostook County with services and resources that help individuals and families achieve greater economic independence. As a leader, or in partnership with others, ACAP provides guidance to the community in responding to emerging human needs in the areas of community health, early care and education, energy and housing, and workforce development services. For more information on ACAP, or to make a tax-deductible contribution, please contact the agency at 771 Main Street, on the web at www.acap-me.org, or by calling 764-3721.
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