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The Best Medicine

‘Good nutrition for a child is crucial to giving them a chance to succeed.’

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From an early age, Ronald Grifka, M.D. knew he wanted to help children.

His little brother had down syndrome, so taking care of kids was a huge part of his life.

His brother inspired him to pursue health care when he grew up.

“When I went through medical school and looking at the different specialties, it was kind of a natural calling to take care of kids,” Dr. Grifka said.

The calling led to a career in pediatrics and cardiology.

Dr. Grifka spent more than 20 years at the Texas Children’s Hospital – Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

But as a Detroit native, he eventually found his way back to Michigan.

In 2006, he began helping young hearts as the chief of cardiology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

He then joined the University of Michigan in 2012 as the professor of pediatrics and an attending cardiologist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

His latest move brought him back to West Michigan. In spring 2019, he was named chief medical officer at Metro Health – University of Michigan.

He has built his career around making sure children are healthy, so he knows firsthand how a nutritious diet improves a child’s overall well-being.

“Good nutrition has tremendous ramifications not just for a child now, but for the rest of their life—especially if they can learn good food habits,” Dr. Grifka said. “Getting good nutrition for a child is crucial to giving them a chance to succeed.”

The team at Kids’ Food Basket has long understood the importance of this chance at success.

It’s written into the organization’s mission: Nourish children to reach their full potential.

Food equity is instrumental in this goal.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow awareness of social disparities that affect health outcomes, the disease has also led to greater recognition of the need for healthy, affordable food.

“Not just with coronavirus but pretty much every other infection, a healthier person and someone with a better diet has a better immune system and immune function,” Dr. Grifka said. “They will be more able to fight off infection and either not get it or recover more quickly if they do get it.”

Sadly, families across the U.S. continue to struggle against the many barriers created by poverty. They must worry constantly about the cost of treatment if someone falls ill.

By focusing on small dietary changes, families can help defend against sickness.

Replacing carbohydrates with proteins and healthy fats, for example, is an easy switch to deliver incremental results.

“Lots of times the big part of a diet for a family who may be struggling and are not fortunate enough to have a pantry full of food is they stock up on a bunch of carbohydrates like breads, cereals, chips, soda pop,” Dr. Grifka said. “Not the healthiest diet.

“Soda pop is cheap and milk is a little more expensive, but milk has certain things that are nutritious, like calcium.”

While a complete overhaul of a child’s diet may seem daunting and expensive, a simple understanding of the right foods can make all the difference.

A day’s worth of calories in the form of junk food or fast food is convenient and cheap, and it’ll even quiet hunger for a spell.

But it’s ultimately just a quick fix that creates bigger problems tomorrow and beyond.

A balanced diet, on the other hand, provides the right nutrition for a child’s overall health.

“It is not just about calories, but the appropriate amount of calories’” Dr. Grifka said. “Having the correct type of food, especially with kids, is really crucial.

“Without it, they are pretty much destined to have significant troubles in life—and there are enough troubles as it is,” he said. “You don’t need to complicate it by a bad diet.”

A bad diet as a child often leads to a bad diet as an adult.

“It is really important that they are starting out right, otherwise they are playing catch up,” Dr. Grifka said. “And many times, they never do.”

Healthy habits instilled at a young age will carry on long into the future.

“It is going to continue and their quality of life is going to be better, which is better for all of us,” Dr. Grifka said.

Good nutrition leads to better neurological development, which can lead to better performance in school and, eventually, better professional outcomes.

The end result? A child becomes a healthy, happy adult who can care for their self and family.

And that benefits everyone—child, family, community.

It proves that food is medicine and now, more than ever, communities need their prescription filled.

“Reading about what Kids’ Food Basket has done and the numbers of meals served, it has made an astronomical difference,” Dr. Grifka said. “Like I said: Good nutrition and good eating habits will last an entire lifetime.”

“Better health, better activity, a better worker, adult, parent,” he said. “It multiplies itself so many times.”

Kids’ Food Basket has distributed more than 360,000 healthy meals to families and children across four counties in West Michigan since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

That’s 360,000 times children have had access to healthier meals.

Or 360,000 steps closer to a chance at success.

“And hopefully, when the child gets that help from Kids’ Food Basket, when they get older they will remember that and give back,” Dr. Grifka said. “And then you have a full cycle.”