When it comes to kids on dialysis, food really is medicine. “We can provide state-of-the-art dialysis treatment and medications, but if they don’t follow a strict diet, they don’t do well,” said Children’s of Alabama Dialysis Director Sahar Fathallah-Shaykh, M.D. That includes a higher risk of hospital admission, infections and even mortality. Plus, it may make them ineligible for transplant because of poor healing, increased risk of infection and poor outcome.
The strict diets are very low in potassium, salt and phosphorus, with no processed or fast food. “This leaves a majority of our patients with a very difficult-to-obtain diet,” she said, particularly since half have significant food insecurity. “If we can’t meet the basic need of food, we’re not helping them that much.”
Which is why she and her team developed the Food as Medicine program in the spring of 2020. Families who qualify based on income and expenses receive a monthly box of non-perishable supplies for their child, as well as support from a renal dietician in how to use them.
“When we started we were hoping to provide them with fresh ingredients once a week, but then COVID came,” Fathallah-Shaykh said, restricting the ability of families to pick up the food on a weekly basis.
Packages include almond milk, rice, pasta, butter, animal crackers, dried herbs and seasonings, grains, cereals, oils for cooking, canned fruits and unsalted vegetables, canned tuna and chicken, and even snacks such as unsalted pretzels and Rice Krisipies Treats. Once the pandemic ends, “we hope that fresh vegetables will join the mix,” Fathallah-Shaykh said.
The unit typically has about 25 patients on dialysis and about half qualify for the program. They claim their boxes when they come for treatment.
The program has been funded, in part, by the Children’s Table fundraiser, a food event and fundraiser to raise awareness about the importance of dietary choices in the health of children and management of pediatric disease. In past years, participants enjoyed tasting plates, signature cocktails, beer, wine and dessert from some of the top chefs in the state. The event has raised more than $100,000 over the past three years to support families’ nutritional needs.
Now the team is trying to figure out how to keep the program going given the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge it presents for in-person events.
“Without that funding,” Fathallah-Shaykh said, “these children may die if we don’t help them with their basic dietary needs. It’s really that serious.”