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Food-bank health clinics aim to bolster care for needy

The pantry projects take medical aid directly to the people who need it most.

WASHINGTON - An out-of-work David Thomas walked into a Milwaukee food pantry just seeking groceries. Thomas learned he was a stroke waiting to happen and got blood-pressure medicine along with his bread.

Food pantries have long aimed to help heal hunger. A new project aims to see how well they can help treat high blood pressure, diabetes and other ailments, too.

"We're taking a window-of-opportunity approach," says Bill Solberg, director of community services for Columbia St. Mary's Hospital in Milwaukee, which cofounded the food-pantry project. "We know we can see these people once a month."

Despite an increasing number of free medical clinics, treatment is hard for the needy to track down. That's especially true for the nation's top health problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. These conditions require continuing care - even when the person feels no symptoms - to avoid heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and amputations.

Clinics require a special trip, a long wait, perhaps a babysitter - huge obstacles for someone who loses a day of pay for the time off.

So specialists increasingly are seeking other ways to address glaring disparities in health care, by taking care directly to where the people who need it most hang out.

Churches nationwide are offering blood-pressure screening days and health fairs. Projects are teaching barbers and beauticians how to encourage a mammogram, or warn their customers about stroke symptoms.

Baltimore health officials are debating a proposal to offer blood-pressure testing in 100 hair salons and barbershops in neighborhoods with high rates of heart disease.

In Milwaukee, Columbia St. Mary's and the Medical College of Wisconsin aim to provide scientific evidence that wellness care can improve food-pantry users' health in nine months.

The targets: high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and smoking. The plan: Nurses will screen users of three food pantries when they come in for free groceries. People with problems can get ongoing care.

And because four of those conditions are diet-related, patients also will get nutrition education: cooking classes in the pantry's kitchen, and tips to make food-bank staples, which are often carbohydrate- and salt-heavy, a little healthier. Medical students will be sent shopping with patients, helping with things like label-checking for salt.

Thomas, 47, learned his blood pressure was sky-high while visiting the project's initial food-pantry clinic. Five days after starting pantry-provided pills, his blood pressure was dropping fast.

"This clinic is going to bring joy to the whole neighborhood," he said.