Hunger is a pressing problem in metropolitan Houston, with one in five households reportedly grappling with food insecurity. Memorial Hermann Health System, a 24,000-employee enterprise comprising 16 hospitals and numerous programs and specialty services in the Houston area, has been confronting the issue since early 2016.

Spearheading the effort is Carol Paret, CEO of the Memorial Hermann Community Benefit Corp., a Memorial Hermann Health System subsidiary. She directed the health system’s electronic health record system to have staff ask patients, “Have you run out of food in the past month, or were you worried you might?”

“It started in our emergency rooms with our navigators, then in our 10 school-based health centers that serve 71 schools, then our neighborhood centers,” Paret says. The initiative was further expanded to include a large residency clinic and 60 primary care centers.

“I think it’s a little more prevalent than people understand,” she says about Americans who worry about having enough food for themselves and their families. “In our school-based health centers, we’re seeing the number [of those affected] is over 30 percent.” In one suburban clinic, physicians were initially skeptical that hunger was an issue in their community; they were “shocked” to discover 10 to 11 percent of their patients dealing with food insecurity.

“Obviously we’re referring people to food venues and we’re working collaboratively with community partners,” Paret says. “We’ve done food coupon stuff and we’ve done cooking demonstrations.”

At least one Memorial Hermann community clinic planted a community garden just outside its doors so that patients can pick fresh produce.

“I think the program has brought a huge level of awareness to Memorial Hermann. If I’m food insecure, I’m probably not paying for medications I need,” Paret says. “As we know more about the social determinants that our patients are dealing with, the better we are going to be in terms of dealing with this issue.”