Exchanging gifts can be more perfunctory than practical, especially this time of year.
“The real spirit of the holidays is helping people who actually need something, like food, clothing, those sorts of things,” said John Biedrzycki, South Hills Chamber of Commerce president, in welcoming guests to the group’s annual holiday luncheon.
As such, chamber leaders encouraged those who attended the 2021 event at St. Clair Country Club to donate food and finances to a cause that promotes well-being through proper nutrition.
Three years ago, Allegheny Health Network launched its first Healthy Food Center, at West Penn Hospital, as a means of providing patients with opportunities to eat better while teaching them about diets that can assist in disease prevention.
“If there is a patient who is diabetic, for example, we would point out what to look for on the food label and what foods are going to be beneficial to lead a healthier lifestyle,” said Caitlin Samples, guest speaker at the holiday luncheon.
A registered dietitian with a master’s degree in food and nutrition, she serves as manager of Jefferson Hospital’s Healthy Food Center, one of five such locations operated by AHN to address issues related to food insecurity, the lack of consistent access to nutritious fare.
“In 2017, an estimated one in eight Americans were food insecure, equating to about 40 million Americans, including more than 12 million children,” Samples reported. “In Allegheny County, alone, the food-insecure population is about 174,000 people, and that’s about 14%.”
Approximately 42,000 of them are children, she reported.
Regionally, AHN clinicians screen patients to determine their status regarding food supply. If they qualify, they are referred to Healthy Food Centers, the latest of which opened Dec. 8 at Forbes Hospital in Monroeville.
There, they are able to obtain the ingredients for nutritious meals.
“We typically buy the healthier foods: low-sodium items, low-sugar, whole-grain, lean proteins. We offer a variety of frozen meats, such as chicken, turkey, ground beef that’s 90/10 or higher,” Samples said, referring to a low percentage of fat. “We provide information to them about shopping on a budget. We also have recipes that we will provide. We also do one-on-one counseling.”
The initiative receives support from numerous regional partners, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, 412 Food Rescue and The Food Trust, which provides “food bucks” to stretch spending.
Helping the cause from a transportation standpoint is Travelers Aid of Pittsburgh.
“We’ve found that a lot of our patients have problems getting to the Healthy Food Centers,” Samples said. “We send a referral to Travelers Aid, which will then reach out to the patients and set up a way for them to get to the center, usually through Uber or Lyft.”
And promoting nutritional self-sufficiency is Gateway Health, which has donated implements for the kitchen.
“A lot of patients get food, and then they don’t know how to cook it or they don’t have the proper tools,” Samples said. “So we provide that to them if they’re in need of it.”
She and other dietitians are happy to provide pointers on relevant topics such as health and weight management, cooking with less-common fruits and vegetables, and the inevitably tricky proposition of preparing nutritious meals that the whole family can enjoy.
“We develop a rapport with our patients,” Samples said. “We really get to know them.”