SECOND HARVEST FOOD BANK (copy)

Volunteer Rob Washenko checks the seals on vegetable cups at Second Harvest Foodbank in Madison in this file photo. Second Harvest, which started a HungerCare Coalition in 2014 to encourage health care providers to work on the link between hunger and health, serves 16 counties.

MICHELLE STOCKER, CAPITAL TIMES

UW Health, which has joined other Madison-area health care providers in screening children for food insecurity, will become the first to ask patients of all ages about hunger next week.

It will also start providing free meals for children during summer.

“Individuals with food insecurity and chronic hunger have more poor health,” said Cassie Vanderwall, a clinical nutritionist and dietetic internship program manager at UW Health. “We’re all about not just dealing with the fruit of the issue but really getting to the root.”

One in nine adults and one in six children in Dane County have food insecurity, or anxiety about having enough food, according to Feeding America, a hunger relief organization.

Starting Tuesday, UW Health providers will ask all emergency room and hospital patients if they have worried about running out of food or didn’t have enough money to buy food within the past 12 months.

If they say yes, they’ll be directed to food pantries and other assistance.

Beginning in 2015, Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin, SSM Health Dean Medical Group, Access Community Health Centers, Associated Physicians and Wildwood Family Clinic started asking the same questions of children, said Anne Gargano Ahmed, coordinator of the HungerCare Coalition at Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin.

About 1 percent to 4 percent of children screened at Group Health and Dean have had food insecurity, which is likely low because it can take awhile before people answer honestly, Ahmed said. But even that has resulted in nearly 600 families being identified.

At Community Connections, a free clinic in Dodgeville, more than half of children have been found to struggle with hunger, she said.

The coalition is encouraging health care systems to expand screening to adults.

“Adults are also very vulnerable to food insecurity,” Ahmed said. “Oftentimes, it’s the parents who skip meals so the kids can eat. Seniors are particularly at risk of food security, and it can have a lot of health effects.”

On Monday, UW Health will start providing free lunches to children under age 18 through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will reimburse UW Health for the food.

The meals, which will continue until Aug. 25, will be offered daily at UW Hospital, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on weekdays at American Family Children’s Hospital, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., for pediatric outpatients and siblings or children or inpatients. Pediatric inpatients already get meals.

No registration or income cutoff will be required. “We are assuming that if they ask for a meal, they need a meal,” Vanderwall said.

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.