July 5, 2019 - Rosa De La Torre, UIC Medical Student

Food and Biases

The one thing in the world that I love the most, besides my family, fiancé and God, is food. I grew up in a household where my mom was always cooking up something delicious on the weekend. Every get-together we had with family and friends was centered around food – arroz, frijoles, tamales, enchiladas, carnitas, tacos…you name it. My brothers and I never wore the latest shoes or clothing, but my parents always worked hard to provide us with as much as they could, and one of those was food. Although there were times where my dad would come home with food from our local Salvation Army pantry, we were fortunate enough to never have had to experience true hunger. This week, I was reminded in many ways how our environment influences our health, most specifically how our environment determines whether we have access to a healthy, home cooked meal.

“We believe food is medicine”, was how our brief orientation session began on Tuesday morning as we were preparing to distribute food to the patients of Jorge Prieto Family Health Center and surrounding neighborhoods. Before the food truck arrived, there were families already lined up (some with a pink slip and others with only a number), patiently waiting to receive their bags of food. Although the setting was very different from our UI Health Pilsen food pantry, I felt right at home shopping with clients, which is a humbling experience I have learned to appreciate. Shopping with someone is a unique one-on-one experience where you encounter someone at their most vulnerable and work together towards a common goal – fitting in as much food as possible without tearing the bag. While the connection only lasts for a few minutes, seeing their face brighten up as you help them choose food from one station to another is priceless. However, as the morning progressed, I was disappointed in how the food was being distributed. Considering the food truck was stationed outside Jorge Prieto FHC, priority was given to their patients (people with a pink slip) while those who were not waited in line even longer. In fact, there were families and individuals who arrived before 8am who did not receive their food until 30 – 45 mins before closing, which by then most of the produce was gone. Similarly, during my visit to Pilsen Little Village CMHC food pantry, I witnessed how clients patiently waited outside in the blazing hot summer weather for 30 mins to receive their food, which consisted mostly of bread and canned food.

While I strongly believe access to food should be a basic human right, I also believe access to healthy food can prevent many diseases and reduce morbidity and mortality among those of lower SES; thus, becoming our responsibility, as clinicians, to screen all patients for food insecurity. For instance, we had a patient in clinic this week who seemed to have everything well put together. She is a senior in college majoring in pre-medicine with the goal of becoming a physician. I initially wasn’t planning to give her a survey because “her responses would probably be ‘normal’”, I thought. However, if I hadn’t taken the time to go over the survey with her, I wouldn’t have discovered she has been limiting how much she eats for the past 12 months because of lack of reliable income and financial support from her mother. It is very easy to judge someone by their appearance. Just because someone looks “well put together” and doesn’t “look poor”, doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling to make ends meet, which is why it is in our patient’s best interest, to take a few extra minutes to ask what other health and social-related needs they may have.

My mother has always said, “when there is a will, there is a way”, which has also resonated a lot with me this week. While I was volunteering at the GCFD food truck, I saw one of our clients from the food pantry lining up to receive food. I am not going to lie, but initially I thought, “I wonder if she really needs this food, I just saw her at the food pantry on Monday”. I immediately felt ashamed, when I saw her accompanied by other women who looked somewhat disheveled and in need (again me being biased). “Perhaps she is an ally in her community and also in need for food”, I thought. During my community visits on Friday, I also met an older gentleman who is a regular at both the Pilsen Little Village food pantry and our food pantry, who shared with me how he used to be a software programmer and eventually lost his job because he couldn’t keep up with the new technological advances in his field. He walks over 2 miles on Fridays when he travels from one pantry to the other, “Thank goodness I have my own shopping cart. Or else I don’t know how I would carry my food,” he shared with me. Similarly, I met two, Asian elderly women who were traveling from Pilsen Little Village food pantry to Benton House, the second pantry to visit on my list. We had gotten off at different bus stops, but immediately recognized them as I was walking away from the Benton House. Unfortunately, Benton House wasn’t open for food distribution because of the holiday, and walked away, with downcast eyes after I informed them the food pantry was closed. I never realized the distance and time it takes for someone to travel to a food pantry, especially when they don’t have reliable transportation and/or are traveling to multiple pantries across the Chicagoland area. When people are forced to provide food for themselves or their family, I have learned that they will travel that extra mile or two to receive as much as they can. While many are proactive about finding social services, they need, what happens to those who don’t know the language or aren’t aware of services offered? Why not lift the burden off their shoulders, and guide them through this process?

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