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A prescription for better rural nutrition

Good Food Rx program serves rural seniors

In 2019, Mellie Boagni Bridewell noticed a worrying trend among the seniors in her community. As CEO and founder of the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership (ARHP), a nonprofit health care network in the southern part of the state, she has spent most of her career searching for outside-the-box solutions to rural health challenges. When ARHP’s members started screening more for social determinants of health (SDOH) as part of their chronic disease management program, food insecurity emerged as a top concern.

“We wanted to address chronic disease, and a lot of what we were seeing in these patients was stressors due to lack of basic needs,” says Bridewell, who is a 2019 graduate of NRHA’s Rural Health Fellows program. “We realized we were feeding people who were basically 90 pounds.”
In recent years, rural barriers to healthy food access have come into sharper focus. In 2022, a Purdue University study indicated up to 23 percent of rural households were food insecure, and recent data show 1 in 5 residents in the ARHP service area live in poverty. Bridewell says there’s only one grocery store in her community, with the next closest option more than 30 minutes away across a bridge in Mississippi. For seniors grappling with illness and lack of transportation, getting something on the table for dinner each night can be a daunting and often insurmountable task.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been to the grocery store in Mississippi and seen someone elderly from our community wandering around the parking lot because they can’t find their car,” Bridwell says. “In the city seniors have an easier time – they can have groceries delivered or go pick it up, but that’s not the case in rural communities.”
"We wanted to address chronic disease, and a lot of what we were seeing in these patients was stressors due to lack of basic needs."
– Mellie Boagni Bridewell
To help rural seniors overcome some of these barriers, ARHP founded their Good Food Rx initiative in early 2023 as a direct response to needs assessments showing the severity of food insecurity in their service area. Using USDA grant funding, the pilot project partners with two primary care practices in southeast Arkansas to provide free food for qualifying seniors over 65 with chronic disease who are experiencing food insecurity. Services include personalized food delivery, nutritional coaching, recipes, and cooking classes. Meals that feed up to four people are delivered each week by community health workers, who also provide tracking, targeted interventions, and support through remote patient monitoring.

Bridewell says the program has been well received by the 60 families it serves, particularly since many rural seniors are living on their own and have limited contact with people outside their home. Betty Davis receives meals through Good Food Rx, and she says she is grateful because transportation is difficult, and the program allows her to have nourishment delivered.
“It is so nice to see people come into my home bringing me meals,” says Pauletta Payne, another Good Food Rx patient. “It is nice to see familiar faces. The program takes a burden off of me having to worry about food because transportation is difficult.”

When it comes to the challenges facing elderly rural residents, Bridewell has firsthand experience. Her parents are in their late 80s and often have trouble getting food when they need it, which impacts their health outcomes and quality of life. Because people are living longer, Bridewell says health care providers need to look at ways not only to keep them healthy but help them live better as they age – and making sure they have readily available meals is one way to do that.
"The program takes a burden off of me having to worry about food because transportation is difficult."
– Pauletta Payne, Good Food Rx patient
“People are living so much longer, and if we don’t look at how to help them live good lives, we’re doing them an injustice,” she says. “If we’re going to do more preventive work and keep people healthy, we’ve got to look what quality of life they’re having if they’re not able to travel or go get food.”

Going forward, Bridewell hopes to expand the program’s offerings, as well as track its impact so she can show insurers that food makes effective medicine. ARHP is also completing a toolkit with SDOH screening tools and other resources for organizations looking to start similar programs. Bridewell’s main piece of advice is not to reinvent the wheel but rather look for opportunities to partner with other organizations that are already preparing large quantities of healthy food, such as local hospitals. She also looks forward to continuing to get to know the seniors in her community – and give them a fresh, healthy meal while she’s at it.
“I believe food is the answer – I think those of us who eat healthy tend to stay healthy,” she says. “I love the idea that I’m doing something healthy for these patients, but my favorite part is knowing that at least once a week they’re seeing somebody who is caring for them. Being able to connect with those folks is the most rewarding part.”

Get involved with NRHA

Through NRHA’s Rural Health Fellows program, rural health leaders like Bridewell receive a year of intensive training that allows them to focus on their areas of interest and boost their leadership and advocacy skills. Learn more about this and other NRHA volunteer and leadership opportunities and consider donating to support these programs.

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