At the end of 2017, Julie Funk, MS, RD, CDE, LDN, Director of Community Health and Wellness Services at Chester County Hospital in West Chester, PA, received a request from the Honey Brook Food Pantry in the county's northwest corner: Did the hospital have someone who could perform blood pressure screenings during food bank hours? Funk quickly said yes and thought of the perfect candidate: herself.
She not only lives in Honey Brook Township but also is a certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian who understands the connections between food insecurity and health. She had worked with the Chester County Food Bank in the past, connecting some of the hospital’s prenatal clinic patients with its services. Also, thanks to the hospital's Community Health Needs Assessments, Funk says she knew that Honey Brook, PA was one of "six hot spots of poverty" in the county. And despite her numerous management responsibilities, Funk has always made it a priority to spend time outside the hospital.
"When I step out of my administrative role and into the grassroots of community health, I do so with a sense of pride," she says. ";I get to put my boots on the ground and do what my staff does. We take what we do to where people are. That is the heart and soul of what our department is known for."
Two Wednesdays each month, when the Honey Brook Food Pantry opens its doors to area residents, Funk is on site to provide not just blood pressure screenings but also health education and individual counseling. In an average month, about 300 to 400 people come to the food pantry; as they gather in the waiting area, Funk mingles with them and strikes up conversations. Each time, she counsels roughly a dozen individuals about specific health concerns and speaks with about 75 others. She chooses a monthly theme to focus her educational efforts, such as how to quit smoking, pack healthy lunches, or eat healthier with diabetes.
"I might be walking around with the ChooseMyPlate model [a visual for eating healthy, balanced meals], or a visual that shows how much sugar is in certain drinks, or that shows what high blood pressure is and what it does to the body," she says.
Funk also relies heavily on a network of community partners developed over her 22-year career with Chester County Hospital. For example, she recently invited a dentist from Community Volunteers in Medicine, which provides free healthcare to the uninsured in Chester County, PAto visit the pantry and counsel clients with dental problems. One day in October, she partnered with the Chester County Department of Health to provide free flu vaccines during food pantry hours. Thirty people - about one-third of the visitors that day - received their flu shots.
"I try to connect people to services," Funk says. "The needs they bring to me are often far beyond blood pressure and nutrition. So then my role is one of referral and connection, helping them find what's available through Chester County to meet those needs."
And the needs are great, despite the fact that Chester County is one of the wealthiest counties in Pennsylvania. In Honey Brook, newer developments of luxury townhomes and carriage houses can overshadow the fact that there are 15 mobile home communities with nearly 1,000 units along Route 322. Honey Brook Township has a 15-percent poverty rate - among the highest in the county - and nearly 40 percent of elementary students in the Twin Valley School District receive free or reduced lunches.
"What really got my attention after I started going to the food pantry was the extent of poverty and it's just dramatic," Funk says. "There are traumatic things these people have been through. But it is a happy and welcoming place that they come to. All of the volunteers make it that way. We know people's names and we treat them with dignity and respect."
As Funk gets to know certain repeat clients, she is able to offer help tailored to their health needs. She describes a grandmother with out-of-control diabetes who works two kitchen jobs and is raising her grandchildren - leaving no time for a diabetes education class. So Funk gave her a copy of the book that Chester County Hospital uses for education, and this client comes a half-hour before the pantry opens to talk about how to manage her diabetes. Funk helped another client with severe dental issues get nutrition drinks to boost her weight and then connected her with free dental services. She worked with another young woman who had gestational diabetes during pregnancy and did not realize the importance of getting her blood sugar checked after her baby was born. Funk made sure she went to her physician, who then diagnosed her with Type 2 diabetes.
"These all seem like little things. But every little thing that someone does might not have happened otherwise," Funk says. "My role is about blood pressure, nutrition education, referrals, health coaching - and also kindness and compassion."
Related Information from Chester County Hospital