National Nutrition Month, held annually every March, has even greater meaning this year as it comes at a time when many people in NY’s Lower Hudson Valley, particularly children, continue to reel from the effects of a now year-old pandemic.
Gina Devito, Director of Wellness Initiatives at Open Door Family Medical Center and a Registered Dietitian, reports a significant increase over the last year in the numbers of children and families they see suffering from food insecurity – defined as a lack of consistent access to adequate, affordable, and nutritious food. This is not surprising, as the population served by the Open Door, a Federally Qualified Health Center, has historically suffered from food insecurity. This has only intensified during Covid-19.
“Being at home, especially during the winter, has made it all the more challenging for Open Door families,” said Devito. This is due to a number of factors: the lack of access to affordable, healthy food; being physically inactive and not exercising; and families under financial stress because of job loss or a reduction in hours. Even getting to the grocery store can become an issue – whether it be because of having to quarantine, being infected with Covid, or having a fear of the virus.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen weight gain at a much faster rate among our pediatric population,” she said. “The lack of access to healthy foods and opportunities to exercise has caused significant issues.
“We’re noting many metabolic changes, including weight gain, increased blood pressure, and elevated glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This can lead to behavioral problems with children having trouble balancing their moods, losing focus, and experiencing sleeping problems. It may impact their school performance. There are a lot of determining factors that show us that many children are struggling.”
Due to its commitment to chronic disease prevention and wellness, Open Door has strong, long-standing partnerships with food banks, community centers and other locally-based organizations committed to ending hunger and strengthening health equity. Working closely with groups like Feeding Westchester, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, and the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Hunger Task Force, Open Door helps in the distribution of nutritious food, medical supplies and face masks to area families in need. Where food was previously picked up at Open Door sites, it’s now largely delivered directly to patients’ homes by volunteer drivers. The number of food bundles distributed has increased dramatically since last spring.
Under normal circumstances, Open Door provides integrated care services to help low-income families reduce or prevent the impact of life-threatening chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer and hypertension. A major component of this is education, which includes helping parents and children gain a better understanding of their nutritional needs, teaching them how to read labels, instructing them how to cook their favorite meals in a healthy manner, and helping them make better food choices.
Throughout the pandemic, Open Door was able to continue to offer health education to area families through telehealth and virtual visits.
“Open Door has worked closely with families to connect them to the information or walk them step-by-step through the process,” said Devito. “Many more as a result are now equipped for digital learning.”
In acknowledgement of the vulnerability of populations like this, the White House recently sent more than 25 million masks to community health centers and food pantries across the country in an effort to increase access for low-income people. Many low-income Americans still lack affordable access to this basic protection.
“We’ve increased efforts to help our adult patients learn more about managing their chronic conditions at home,” said Devito. This includes teaching patients how to self-monitor their blood glucose and blood pressure, promoting appropriate foods and portion sizes, and monitoring medication adherence.
“Open Door specializes in working with patients who have high needs and we’re well equipped to find ways to manage really challenging situations like this,” she said. “Patients may be hesitant about virtual visits at first, but when they try it, they are engaged and see the value of the service for themselves and their children.”
Open Door Family Medical Centers’ mission has remained consistent since it opened in 1972: to provide high-quality health care that’s affordable, accessible and efficient. Today, the federally qualified health center cares for nearly 1,000 adults and children every day in Westchester and Putnam counties – with more than 300,000 patient visits – regardless of one’s ability to pay. In addition to medical, dental, pediatric, women’s, podiatry and behavioral health care offered in its Ossining, Port Chester, Sleepy Hollow, Mount Kisco, Brewster, Mamaroneck and Saugerties facilities, as well as its school-based health centers, Open Door promotes wellness, good nutrition, stress reduction and physical activity to help families stay healthy.