Hunger is a fact of life for hundreds of thousands of people living in the Inland Empire – a region of Southern California roughly the size of Maine and home to more than 4 million residents. The region encompasses San Bernardino and Riverside counties, which extend east all the way to the Arizona border.

More than 20% of the counties’ residents live below the poverty level. And Inland Empire’s physician shortage – at 120 doctors per 100,000 people – is among the worst in the state and far below national standards.

Those grim statistics help explain why Upland-based San Antonio Regional Hospital partnered nearly two years ago with prominent real estate developer and philanthropist Randall Lewis to create the Lewis-San Antonio Healthy Communities Institute or HCI. Lewis contributed $1 million to fund the five-year program, which brings together civic, community and business leaders to improve the health status of the region.

Lewis described the institute as “another step in our journey to engage people from various sectors, including hospitals, school districts, cities and other health and social service organizations, in a collaborative effort to solve the health care challenges we face today.”

In 2011, Lewis established a graduate intern program designed to develop and equip graduate students in health-related fields to influence public policy and the local community.

San Antonio Regional Hospital and Lewis “share a vision abut health care employment as a pathway out of poverty,” says hospital president and CEO Harris Koenig. “Well-paying jobs can improve educational levels and overall economic conditions, which, in turn, can improve the health status of the region.”

As part of its efforts to bolster the region’s health care workforce pipeline, HCI partnered with area high schools and middle schools to offer classroom courses that get students thinking about pursuing a health care career.;

“As our young people come through the pipeline we want them to take these skills and use them in the community … become a resource … and find their path in the health care world,” says Cathy Rebman, the hospital’s vice president of business development and community outreach. “We’re focused on workforce development, because we have a shortage now and we will have a shortage in the future. We want students to know that there is a need for them in the region.”

Food insecurity is another priority issue. HCI partners on a food recovery project called Food Recover IE that informs food retailers about hunger in the Island Empire and encourages them to donate unused food to local pantries.

HCI Director Baltazar notes that “one of four children are going to bed hungry. If we can get healthy foods into the hands of hungry families in our region we can make a huge difference.”

Another initiative offers courses for government officials and elected leaders on how issues like chronic illness, housing and homelessness, access to healthy foods and transportation, among others, can affect a community’s health.

Baltazar calls HCI both a “convener and connector” in the community. “We try to open up all lines of communication with community stakeholders,” she says. “We leverage each individual organization’s resources so they can bring to the table their expertise to accomplish the larger goal of building a healthier community.”

As hospitals and health systems move towards value-based care and population health management, Koenig believes health care can bring people out of poverty by addressing the social determinants of health.

“The issue is how you can get sufficient traction to make more [community health] improvement,” he says. “If we can put together enough of an organization, enough of a meaningful structure that attracts grant money and private funds, then the initiatives we have started can have a broader impact on health care determinants.”