White House Challenge to End Hunger Approves UTHealth Houston Innovative Commitments to Food is Medicine

3 Minute Read

Three commitments to improve food security, diet quality, and health outcomes for vulnerable communities, made by UTHealth Houston in partnership with local and national organizations, have been approved as part of the White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities.

The challenge, which was sent to national organizations by invitation only, is part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health.

“Through these collective efforts, UTHealth Houston and its partners in public health will create pathways to provide produce to millions of people in the United States, including children and high-risk pregnant mothers, with a focus on improving nourishment and nutrition, and eliminating food insecurity and food waste,” said Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, MD, UTHealth Houston president and Alkek-Williams Distinguished Chair.

“We expect these three commitments to create a strong technology infrastructure to improve care coordination between health care and social services for all social determinants of health, and rapidly implement and scale evidence-based strategies for Food Is Medicine approaches statewide and nationally,” said Shreela Sharma, PhD, RD, professor and vice chair of the Department of Epidemiology, and director of the Center for Health Equity at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, who is co-leading all three strategies alongside school faculty and staff, as well as local and national partners.

“Recognition by the White House of UTHealth Houston’s commitment to improve health through both community-based and school clinic-based programs is a great honor,” said Eric Boerwinkle, PhD, dean of UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, who holds the M. David Low Chair in Public Health and the Kozmetsky Family Chair in Human Genetics. “The collaborative closed loop referral system to identify and address food insecurity is imaginative, imminently doable, and scalable across communities and geographies.”

The commitments include referrals to social services, produce prescriptions for children, and produce prescriptions for high-risk pregnant mothers:

Produce prescriptions for children through school-based health centers with Brighter Bites – UTHealth Houston and Brighter Bites, a nonprofit organization, are partnering together to implement and evaluate the impact of a comprehensive produce prescription strategy consisting of access to fresh produce plus nutrition education for implementation among food-insecure children and their families through school-based health centers. Produce will be provided through the Houston Food Bank. There are more than 3,200 school-based health centers across 48 U.S. states with over 7 million children receiving primary care at these clinics. The initiative will start in Texas with partners such as Legacy Community Health School-Based Health clinics. With the national footprint of Brighter Bites, the produce prescription approach will be scaled so that it is available for implementation across school-based health centers nationwide.

Produce prescriptions for high-risk pregnant mothers – UTHealth Houston is partnering with Planet Harvest LLC to implement produce prescription programs to improve pregnancy and birth outcomes among high-risk pregnant mothers. They will partner with health systems to supply high-risk pregnant women with home deliveries of produce boxes coupled with nutrition education materials on how to use the produce provided. Starting in Texas, Planet Harvest and UTHealth Houston will implement and evaluate the impact of this approach in partnership with Harris Health System, Brighter Bites and DoorDash. With the national footprint of Planet Harvest, this approach will be scaled to mainstream health care systems, which would increase education, further demonstrate the power of nutritious eating, and encourage better diet for entire families beginning with pregnancy.

Closed-loop referral to improve technology capacity of care coordination for social determinants of health – UTHealth Houston-led Health Equity Collective, a systems coalition in the Greater Houston region, will facilitate the development of governance and technology capacity for a closed-loop referral technology infrastructure between health care and social service organizations, improving community resource accessibility for social determinants of health across the Greater Houston region. This commitment includes partnership with organizations such as Ajah, Greater Houston Healthconnect, Combined Arms, Ready Computing, Houston Food Bank, and United Way of Greater Houston who are facilitating the referral exchange for their member organizations.

“We are extremely grateful to our partners for their support, enthusiasm and commitment to this work, and thrilled to be part of the White House Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities,” Sharma said. “Together we will build a robust care coordination infrastructure upon which we will layer the most impactful services and go the last mile to deliver these programs to the communities that need it the most.”

UTHealth Houston key collaborators for the commitments include Boerwinkle; Christine Markham, PhD; Nalini Ranjit, PhD; Ru-Jye (Lindi) Chuang, DrPH, MS; Heidi McPherson, MPH; Naomi Tice, MPH; Wesley Gibson, MPH; and Savitri Appana, MS.

Back to top