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Minn. hunger-relief program for seniors launches

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A new hunger-relief program is testing whether better access to food can help reduce costly hospital readmissions among seniors.

Park Nicollet Health Services, Hunger-Free Minnesota and Second Harvest Heartland are working on the project, which will send firefighters to the homes of seniors recently discharged from Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park.

During the visits, firefighters will use a screening tool to determine if patients lack nutritious food and if that's hindering their recovery, Second Harvest CEO Rob Zeaske said. 

"The idea there is to certainly improve the outcomes for those senior patients, but particularly those struggling with food insecurity or difficulty accessing food," he said. "We know that food is medicine."

Zeaske said seniors who struggle with "food insecurity" - those who do not have enough access to nutritious food -- will be connected with nearby food shelves or benefit programs.  

According to a new hunger analysis, Minnesota health systems could significantly increase food program participation by connecting more patients with emergency food and nutrition programs.

Researchers for the Boston Consulting Group estimate that the 40 largest Minnesota hospitals and affiliated satellite clinics could help close the state's meal gap by 25 million to 35 million meals annually. 

Health systems have been an under-utilized channel for reaching food-insecure Minnesotans, said Pete Lawyer, managing director of the Boston Consulting Group.

"These folks do come in to contact with the health care system routinely," Lawyer said. "So 80 percent or more of the people that we would like to reach, who are food insecure, on an annual basis are coming in to contact somewhere, somehow [with the health care system]."

Lawyer said health systems have shown increasing interest in addressing food insecurity, partly as a way to help patients improve their health and reduce unnecessary health care expenses.