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caption: White Center Food Bank and Sea Mar Health Center teamed up to create a pantry shelf in the clinic's waiting area.
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White Center Food Bank and Sea Mar Health Center teamed up to create a pantry shelf in the clinic's waiting area.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Ruby de Luna

The number of Washington residents going hungry has nearly tripled. Some clinics are stepping in.

If you go to the doctor for health checkups, you’re likely to get screened for high blood pressure or disease. But lately, some clinics are screening for something else: food insecurity. A new program aims to address a problem that’s gotten worse during the pandemic.

At Sea Mar Health Center in White Center, Health Educator Maddi Rinehart is following up with a patient over the phone after a medical appointment. Rinehart asks Christina Common, the patient, a couple of questions.

“Within the past 12 months, you worried that your food would run out before you got money to buy more," Rinehart said. "Was that true for you? Never? Sometimes? Or often?”

“Very true,” Common responded.

Rinehart’s second question was similar.

“Within the past 12 months the food you bought just didn’t last and you didn’t have money to get more,” she said.

“Often true,” Common said.

Based on the answers, Rinehart offered several resources, one of which is the White Center Food Bank. Common said she knows about the food bank, but she told Rinehart she can’t make the trip when it’s open because she’s usually at work.

Rinehart nodded.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that from a number of other people,” she said.

Sea Mar is part of a King County program that works to connect patients experiencing hunger with food resources.

“I work with a lot of patients with chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension,” Rinehart said. "So knowing what kind of social situation or social determinants are at play for patients helps me find ways that work for each individual patient to better their health outcomes.”

Studies have shown that chronic food stress is tied to an increased risk of chronic illness.

Food may be fundamental to health, but access to it is a growing challenge.

Before the pandemic, 10 percent of Washington residents had trouble accessing food. But a recent survey shows that number has nearly tripled, and communities of color are disproportionately affected. In King County more than 100,000 households are on food assistance.

Carmen Smith, executive director of the White Center Food Bank, said rising food costs are driving those numbers.

“Everything’s more expensive,” Smith said. “Something we’re also experiencing is the formula shortage. That’s been a big, big topic for us the past few months. And that’s hurting families with little ones, too. Because it’s hard to find formula, they’re driving city to city, county to county trying to find formula and not having a lot of luck.”

Even though food banks have gotten busier, not everyone’s able to access them, just like in Common's situation. One way to get around that is to bring food to the patients. In this case, White Center Food Bank and Sea Mar teamed up to create a pantry in the clinic’s waiting area so patients can help themselves. The shelves are filled with peanut butter, boxes of rice, cans of salmon and various vegetables.

“We really like meeting people where they go rather than asking them to come to us all the time,” Smith explained. “It just gets more food out to the community.”

And it’s not just about convenience. Rinehart hopes the screening will remove some of the stigma around accepting help.

“I’m lucky to have such a long appointment time to be able to build that rapport," Rinehart said. "So patients can sometimes feel more comfortable using those resources.”

King County is part of a growing trend. Medicare and Medicaid officials are focusing on food insecurity as part of their health policies. Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has developed resources to help physicians identify patients who are food insecure. The association notes the problem goes beyond hunger and often leads to health risks for both children and adults.