In an era of spiraling healthcare costs, there’s a growing awareness of the positive role that experts from the healthcare field can play. That doesn't just mean doctors and other clinicians, but also food and nutrition professionals. And indeed, an increasing number of are reaching out to their local communities with informational programs that aim to connect the dots between the amorphous term “nutrition” and actual good health.

There may even be a financial benefit to community nutrition and wellness outreach programs in the form of insurance reimbursement, says Karen Lechowich, vice president of diversity and external relations for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Lechowich concedes that the “reimbursement area” for such efforts is “very complex and complicated,” but that “perhaps some insurance groups reimburse for group settings for diabetes education, for example, in a retirement center.” Also, she notes, the impact of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare," or ACA) on this area has not yet been fully explored but may well offer additional benefits for providing such services, given its emphasis on reducing healthcare costs through preventative care.

Others with their eye on the impact of the ACA point to the creation of large Accountable Care Oranizations (ACOs) and other healthcare delivery models that will be reimbursed not on individual fee or service charges but with "flat fees" negotiated for large groups of individuals using the ACO. Such models would have a built in incentive to keep participants healthy and better educated about health and nutrition issues so they can receive primary care or counseling before medical issues become critical hospitalization issues.

Get Fresh

On the nutrition front, one of the more effective approaches to community outreach is the chef demo, which leverages the growing cultural interest in the culinary arts, the so-called "Food Network Effect." Many healthcare providers have found that such events can be a very effective outreach tool, especially for those most in need of nutrition education.

For example, when health and wellness cooking demos are presented at the Cardiac Rehab Center of the Geisinger Health System in Danville, PA, they are geared to the general community in the area and posted in community newspapers. These events tend especially to attract Geisinger's former cardiac patients and their families and that’s just fine with Rebecca Crotti, RD, Geisinger’s Healthy Selections Coordinator.

“In fact, one of our most popular Guest Chefs is one of our cardiac patients,” she says. “We always have a dietitian there with any of our Guest Chefs (many are restaurant chefs invited from the community) to make sure the appropriate educational message is provided.”

This summer, as in summers past, a 15-week long “Get Fresh Market” program, which includes a cooking demo repeated throughout the day, is held by Geisinger each Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. To support local and sustainable produce, a different in-season fruit or vegetable is highlighted each week in the cafeteria.

In June, strawberries were the first item spotlighted in a recipe that meets the Healthy Selections guidelines (30% of calories or less from fat, etc.). "We’ll provide recipe cards for that recipe as well as others featuring that item,” Crotti explains. Also disseminated are educational handouts detailing how to select and prepare the item, as well as its nutritional benefits. Such information is especially welcome for less familiar items such as okra and bok choy, Crotti notes.

Although all programs presented by the Food & Nutrition Services Department (typically in collaboration with the Wellness Department, the Clinical Nutrition Department, and the Sustainability Department) are open to visitors and guests of the nearly 900-bed system, they have until recenly focused on the internal audience, but that is changing. For example, “our Wellness page is in the process of switching to an external web page so the community can access it whenever they choose,” Crotti reports.

Geisinger’s Marketing Department does maintain a presence on broad market social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and it also has an Events page on the facility’s external website. “Especially during March—National Nutrition Month—we’re on the local TV news segments a lot promoting anything we’re doing for the public in regard to healthful eating,” Crotti points out. "There’s great excitement around the new Get Fresh Market." That event is held in Geisinger's state-of-the-art Expo Kitchen, where the cooking demos can be recorded and put on the hospital's website.