Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital’s “Recipe for Health” Program Offers an Rx for Food Insecurity

Diabetes, heart disease and obesity are the top three health challenges facing adult residents of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital’s service area. But there’s another, non-medical factor that also negatively impacts the health and wellbeing of many who live in the South Los Angeles community and can aggravate the severity of their chronic medical conditions – food insecurity.

While doctors can prescribe medications and order treatments for diabetes, heart disease and obesity, there is no “prescription” to alleviate food insecurity. Or, there wasn’t until the hospital launched its “Recipe for Health” food program in March 2019 in partnership with its nonprofit affiliate MLK Community Medical Group.

The program is based on the idea that fresh, nutritious food is also an important medicine that can help heal the body. After being screened for the program, patients are given a food voucher, designed to look like a prescription, by their Medical Group doctor. Then, they bring the voucher to the hospital to pick up a package of fresh fruits and vegetables from the Food and Nutrition Services Department. The package, which is good for one week and can feed up to four people per household, also includes easy, healthful recipes.

“We wanted to provide a service that, by addressing our patients’ food insecurity, also helps their health needs,” said Lauren Espy, manager of community programs at Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital. “It’s something that’s really needed in our community.”

South Los Angeles residents do not have widespread opportunities to make healthy food choices compared to other areas of Los Angeles County, and this has an adverse effect on their overall health. The community consistently has a high prevalence of chronic diseases. It also has the second-highest age-adjusted mortality rate in the county, with 726.6 deaths per 100,000 residents. This rate is 22.4% higher than the average for the county (593.5) and 50.3% higher than West Los Angeles, which had the lowest reported mortality rate of the county’s eight service planning areas. Additionally, South Los Angeles has higher mortality rates for almost all leading causes of death when compared to LA County and California overall.

To be eligible for the Recipe for Health program, patients must have one of the following chronic health conditions: prediabetes, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease or obesity – plus food insecurity.

In addition to receiving food vouchers, program participants can attend a variety of wellness classes, including a grocery store tour, cooking class or nutrition education class. The tours and classes are provided by the hospital’s program partners. Cedars-Sinai Health Habits Program offers the grocery store tours. LA Care’s Lynwood and Inglewood Family Resource Centers provide free health education and exercise classes and SEE-LA’s Pompea Smith Good Cooking/Buena Cocina Nutrition Education Program provides cooking classes at the farmer’s market it holds every Wednesday at the hospital.

To date, approximately 140 patients have enrolled in the program, 77 of whom are considered active participants. While it’s still too early to show data-driven results, there is anecdotal evidence that the program is effective. “People who work at the Medical Group say patients are telling them they find the program valuable,” Espy said. “They’re noticing that
their blood pressure levels are down. They’re saying they have more energy, which is helping them to cope better with everyday life. They’re definitely finding benefits in it.”

For additional information about Communities Lifting Communities, contact Karen Ochoa, CLC Project Manager, at (213) 538-0765 or