Healthcare. Housing. Harm reduction. These are the tools that help individuals experiencing homelessness find independence and success. Every year, Heartland Alliance Health works with partners like WellCare Health Plans to achieve that success for thousands of Chicagoans.
Heartland Alliance’s vision is to achieve equity and opportunity for all. We believe that by ensuring everyone in society has access to safety, health, housing, education, economic opportunity and justice, individuals are better equipped to exit poverty and achieve stability. As part of health and well-being, there is a critical need for proper food and nutrition.
According to Feeding America, over 40 million people are struggling with hunger. This number includes 12 million children. Often these families have to make a choice between keeping the lights on or feeding their family, or paying a medical bill or buying food.
Throughout the year and especially during September – Hunger Action Month – Heartland Alliance provides supports for those who are hungry. Laura Ritland Samnadda, Heartland Alliance Health’s Food and Nutrition Manager, has dedicated her career to helping others escape the daily crisis of food insecurity.
“People with food insecurity tend to struggle with housing, transportation, medical bills, employment, and overall poverty. But they might also be your neighbor who just lost a job and is just trying to get by paying the rent and utilities – it could literally be anyone at this point.”
Over the past three decades, one of Heartland Alliance’s primary goals has been to end hunger for as many individuals as possible – helping people achieve not only their health and nutrition goals, but achieving overall life goals as well.
To increase healthy food and nutrition options for participants, we employ a team of traveling dietitians that provide community-wide cooking classes, as well as partner with agencies like the Greater Chicago Food Depository and Heartland Human Care Service’s FarmWorks urban farm. Additionally, we have an advocacy team who promotes stronger food assistance programs, and a city-wide system of food pantries, known as Vital Bridges, dedicated to serving some of the most at-risk populations.
Vital Bridges is a participant choice site – meaning that the pantries don’t want to have people walk away with food they aren’t going to use. We are especially focused on creating a welcoming atmosphere for those who need our services, so that visitors are encouraged by the options provided.
Heartland Alliance Health Community Dietician Elizabeth Murphy believes strongly in that approach.
“Everybody deserves access to food – not just any food, but good, healthy food that nourishes you. A lack of access to food is connected with environment and social factors that can keep people unhealthy or unsafe.”
According to the National Education Association, hungry children have lower math scores, and are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late, or miss it entirely. These adverse experiences can compound and if hunger continues to ensue, the likelihood of escaping poverty decreases. According Bertha Segura De Gonzalez, coordinator for the Vital Bridges food pantries, the question of who eats in a household is a question asked far too often.
“Often times, we are the only source of food for the people we serve. A participant will feed their children before eating, sometimes there are no leftovers for the participant to eat.”
Shopping in our pantries is only the first step to healthier outcomes. Our staff are quick to work together to provide more access to supports for the participant. Oftentimes, we are able to connect them with other Heartland Alliance programming – using our housing, healthcare, or employment services to help them find safety and stability.
At Heartland Alliance, we prefer to focus on the “action” part of Hunger Action Month and according to Samnadda, there are many ways for all of us to take a stand for those who are food insecure.
“Advocate, donate, and volunteer. The final version of the Farm Bill that houses SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other feeding programs is being voted on soon. Please call or write your representatives and ask them to protect SNAP. “
Supporters also can join us as we near our annual Harvest for Hope food drive. This year, our food and nutrition team is especially in need of financial support. As we strive to continue providing choice and flexibility for our participants, funds raised allow the staff to buy food and personal care items for specific individuals and families as needed. Please click here or contact Celeste Johnson for more information – (312) 660-1390, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Ritland Samnadda is Heartland Alliance’s Food and Nutrition Manager. She has seen firsthand just how powerfully the fear of hunger can affect a person’s well-being. Her efforts to provide access to healthy food and nutritional counseling have benefited countless participants. A dietitian and humanitarian at heart, she finds hope in the very people she serves.
What got you into this work?
As a dietitian, I worry about the food people have access to and the choices they have to make living in a food desert. Getting a chance to serve individuals who need services like the ones I provide has always been the goal.
Why is this work important to the community? To the people we serve?
According to 2016 Map the Meal Gap data, there are over 1.4 million Illinoisans experiencing hunger every day. That’s 1 in 9 people. But when you look at Cook County specifically, those numbers turn into 1 in 7 people. What we know is that food insecurity and poverty go hand-in -hand and affects people in every neighborhood.
Was there a moment where you KNEW you were in a job that was right for you? Could you talk about that?
I remember one participant who came to Vital Bridges and told me that he didn’t know when he was going to eat again. He was older and frail, and he showed me how his belt was tightened to the last notch of his belt to hold up his pants. He didn’t qualify for SNAP. Seeing him struggle with hunger was incredibly difficult, yet I felt proud that we were there for him when he needed food. This same participant still comes to our food pantry and he’s happy, vibrant, and at a healthy weight. He sees the dietitians monthly for a check-in and vitamins.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I’m so grateful to be a part of the food and nutrition team at Heartland Alliance Health – who provides food and nutrition services to people experiencing homelessness, mental illness and other chronic diseases. We have three food pantries a part of the Vital Bridges food program that serves people who are living with HIV and AIDS. These pantries are located in Englewood, West Garfield Park, and Edgewater. These three communities have food insecurity rates of 20-57.8% of residents. Knowing that we are making a difference for those who need it most is all I need!
How can others help your work?
Advocate, donate, and volunteer. The final version of the Farm Bill that houses SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other feeding programs is being voted on soon. Please call or write your representatives and ask them to protect SNAP.
Donating items to our food programs is always helpful, and you also can volunteer at our food pantries.
Heartland Alliance Health (HAH) is dedicated to serving those most often overlooked in the healthcare system. Not only do we care for these people – low-income individuals and families, individuals experiencing homelessness, or facing substance use disorders – we seek them out to offer our support. This approach is woven throughout our philosophy of care.
We began providing health, dental, and nutritional services at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Since then, we have provided thousands of connections to healthcare partners and providers. Sarah Dickson (pictured at right), who is the organization’s traveling nurse practitioner, understands the impact of the connections made.
“Outreach is probably the most important part of our job. It’s where participant engagement begins, in the space that is comfortable to the person we are trying to serve. It’s where people begin to trust, and where they begin to heal.”
With two long-running facilities on Chicago’s North and West sides, HAH has been able to provide a safe and welcoming space for individuals seeking a healthcare professional who practices without judgment or bias. The organization is expanding access for participants by opening a new healthcare center on the South Side on March 20. And throughout the center’s development, Sarah has been dedicated to providing services for individuals in communities like Englewood, Garfield Park, and Bronzeville. Stopping by shelters like Matthew House and Teen Living Programs, Sarah is able to bring healthcare to the people – giving those without a stable home or healthcare practitioner some relief and a chance to heal.
“There is a fair number of cold and allergy complaints however, there are some very diverse and complex medical problems. Many individuals are managing an insulin regimen for their diabetes. I see a lot of arthritis and pain complaints, especially with people who have to travel from site to site every day.”
The outreach Sarah provides can be a life-changing experience. The initial connection oftentimes develops into a long-running relationship between the participant and HAH that enables the organization to also provide housing, employment, and supportive services. However, it easier to maintain consistent care when there’s a permanent location for services.
“It can be tough to coordinate with the outreach facility and the participant. It’s hard to schedule things properly when someone doesn’t have the stability of a home – or the stability of a brick and mortar healthcare center. It’s a challenge to create a consistent presence so that participants can plan on being seen for follow up.”
But that is all about to change. This month, Heartland Alliance Health is proud to be opening its Englewood Healthcare Center, where we will house a full staff of medical practitioners – from doctors and nurses, to clinical counselors and pharmacists. Finally, Sarah will have a nearby location to send individuals after their initial connections.
“This center is a needed resource in the community. With several facilities and pharmacies shutting down in the neighborhood, we’ll be able to provide a huge benefit to the south side.”