Community-Based Health Care Organizations Take on Food Insecurity

The Lempert Report
July 06, 2021

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 50 million are food insecure that’s 15 million more Americans than pre-pandemic.

Food insecurity disproportionately impacts racial minorities and low-income populations, and it is especially problematic for those with chronic conditions. H. Jack Geiger, MD, who established community health centers in the Mississippi Delta in 1965, is remembered for commenting that “The last time I checked my textbooks, the specific therapy for malnutrition was, in fact, food.” Community-based organizations and health care systems throughout the country have been rising to the challenge of food insecurity with a variety of innovative approaches.

The National Program Office for the Bridging the Gap: Reducing Disparities in Diabetes Care initiative, works with health and social service organizations across the US to address the needs of patients with diabetes. They have identified strategies that have been central to the success in programs aimed at increasing food access and reducing food insecurity in disadvantaged populations. Number one is Embedding Food Distribution In Hospitals And Clinics which has been proven to can substantial benefits, including the expeditious provision of food for those in urgent need, co-location of services to reduce patient burden, opportunities to provide skills-based nutrition education, and the establishment (or reinforcement) of institutional trust.

One such effort is The Roots Community Health Center in Oakland, California, that hosts an on-site food pantry, the Roots Community Market. The market provides free access to food to patients at a trusted location where patients connect with their health care teams. It operates with a choice model that allows clients to select from a variety of staple foods, produce, and meat and uses a point system that encourages community members to make healthy choices. Healthier foods, such as fresh produce and low-fat meats, cost fewer points than less healthy options, such as canned foods and high-fat items. Patients receive a fixed number of points with which to shop based on family size and other factors. Between June 2019 and March 2020, the Roots Community Market distributed food 518 times to 313 patients, reaching an average of 37 patients per month. During the pandemic, Roots offered expeditious access to food through 2,839 no-contact distributions to 695 patients and their families on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis from March 2020 to December 2020. This represented an increase of more than 500 percent in the number of food distributions and more than 200 percent in the number of patients served during similar time periods.

Successful cross-sector collaborations focused on food insecurity require a unique combination of organizations in the social service, health care, agriculture, philanthropic, and government sectors. These initiatives are critical and deserve our financial and moral support.