Health Accolades - Innovative Hospital Award Winner 2022

Innovative Hospital: Allegheny General Hospital

Learn how this hospital network combines treatment for diabetes and heart disease with support for healthier food options.

In this series of hospital award winners, we're celebrating medical institutions that employ fresh and advanced approaches to patient care.

About three years ago, Linda Loving’s doctor asked her if she was getting enough to eat. She replied that she was eating what was affordable and convenient: fast food and sandwiches with processed meats. 

“Those foods, they kinda make you sluggish; you don’t want to do anything. You don’t want to get up and walk—you just want to lie around, and that’s what I was doing,” she says. 

Loving’s doctor told her she was close to being diagnosed with diabetes and would need to take medication. But the doctor also gave her another prescription: a referral to Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Healthy Food Center. The referral meant free access to healthy food, including fresh fruits and vegetables, and nutritional advice to prepare meals based on her health needs. 

“If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t think to cook like that. I am eating a lot healthier than I was,” Loving says. 

The idea for the Healthy Food Center came from AHN’s realization that food insecurity often goes hand in hand with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. People end up eating what’s accessible and affordable, which is typically heavily processed or fast foods. 

“A lot of times, when someone falls in the category of being food insecure, the first thing that gets cut out of the budget is produce,” says Colleen Ereditario, RD, MPH, program manager for the AHN Healthy Food Center.

Before AHN opened its pilot location in 2018, Ereditario says it screened for food insecurity in some hospital practices. When screenings came back showing a high number of people in need of help, AHN knew it was worth a try. Now Ereditario is the program manager for five sites that have provided 160,000 meals over the past four to five years. 

The Healthy Food Center isn’t like a regular food pantry—though it does partner with the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for inventory—but that’s what Loving likes about it. She says she feels supported and encouraged by the staff. After each visit, Loving leaves with foods she wants to eat and recipes for how to prepare them. 

People can only use the Healthy Food Center with a referral from a doctor affiliated with one of AHN’s hospitals, and there are registered dietitians and diet techs on staff. The referral includes what’s going on with the person’s health, including whether they have diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or anything else that’s important in understanding their nutritional status. Participants fill out an intake form on their first visit that helps staff understand their dietary needs and food insecurity. 

Once a dietitian knows what their needs are, they can start making recommendations, showing people how to read nutrition labels while food shopping, and introducing new fruits and vegetables. The Healthy Food Center will also connect people with other community resources, such as Food Trust in order to get coupons for produce at farmers’ markets and Traveler’s Aid for transportation to and from the Center. 

Ereditario credits the Center’s success with its ability to combine access to healthy foods and education in one place. She says people want the education once they have access to the foods being recommended. 

“Pittsburgh has one of the largest food deserts,” Ereditario says. “If you throw a transportation barrier on top of that, people really have a hard time accessing fruits and vegetables. It makes it [difficult] to manage your health when you don’t have access to healthy foods.” 

Loving admitted she had never touched zucchini and squash before, but now she adds them to one of her favorite meals: fresh vegetable stew. The 72-year-old also noticed a difference in how she feels after making these dietary changes. 

“When I started eating more fruits and vegetables, I kind of got a little more perky. Then after I would eat, I wanted to go for a walk just to get some exercise in,” she says. 

Loving is among many who have changed their eating habits thanks to the Healthy Food Center. According to Ereditario, 90% of participants surveyed said that the center helped them to eat more fruits and vegetables, and they noticed improvements in their health and well-being.

AHN tracks the program’s success through participant surveys and by looking at nutrition-related labs, such as A1C levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. “We’ve seen a positive trend in those clinical outcomes,” says Ereditario. “We’ve seen people’s A1C drop.”

According to Loving, her labs are trending in the right direction. She’s focused on getting the levels low enough to stop taking that medication, which her doctor said could depend on her diet. She says, “Everything depends on your diet, and I’m thinking, Okay, then I need to do something about the diet. And that’s what I did.”

This article was fact checked by Morgan Mullings.

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