New evidence suggests Cook County is facing a hunger crisis

CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) - Seventeen million Americans have signed up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act, and in Cook County, many of the new patients are receiving a surprise diagnosis that they're undernourished.

Jessica Gabriel is a single mother of six, a widow, who's unemployed. When she recently brought two of her children to the Logan Square Health Clinic, she and the kids got more than a checkup from the doctor.

Gabriel received some fresh onions, cabbage, bananas and tomatoes from a truckload of fresh produce parked right next to the clinic. It was one-stop-shopping for a doctor's visit, and some fresh produce.
“It’s more convenient, actually, very convenient,” Gabriel said.

More than convenient, it's one way of dealing with increasing numbers of residents who appear to be going hungry in Cook County.  The free produce is provided by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which says that one out of every six county residents is now getting some food from a food pantry or soup kitchen.

“Despite the fact that there are signs of rebounding in the economy, we are serving more people than we have ever served in the history of our organization,” said Kate Maehr of the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Doctors at Cook County's clinics are also seeing more evidence of hunger, in part because of the influx of newly insured patients.

“Over the last few years, because of the Affordable Care Act, we are now caring for a whole slew of a population of patients that we never cared for before,” said Dr. Denis Cunill of the Logan Square Health Clinic.

New patients are now routinely screened for "food insecurity." If they need help, a doctor writes them a prescription, not for drugs, but for fresh produce from one of the Food Depository Fresh Trucks.

“We think that the Affordable Care Act has done a nice job of taking poor individuals, who before couldn't get health care coverage, and  getting them health care coverage, but it doesn't do anything about putting groceries on their table or food in their stomach,” said Jay Shannon, CEO of Cook County Health and Hospital System.

The food depository's Executive Director said linking the county's health services to the nutritional programs makes perfect sense.

“We recognized that we were serving a lot of the same clients. There are men and women and children who are going into county health clinics to get care, and they're also turning to food pantries and soup kitchens to get emergency food assistance,” Maehr said.

“We need to take a step back and realize how much food is medicine, and the medicine therefore is the food,” Dr. Cunill said.

If the Logan Square pilot program succeeds, produce trucks could eventually end up at all 16 Cook County health clinics.

Last year, the food depository distributed 23-million pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables to residents of Cook County.