Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the food insecurity rate in the United States was the lowest it had been in 20 years. Since 2019, multiple factors have influenced the increased rates of food insecurity – inflation, the rising cost of food, supply chain issues, labor shortages, unemployment, and family illness. Today, 42 million Americans are food insecure and Feeding America, the nation’s largest network of food banks recently reported that 1 in 5 adults sought food outside of a typical retail setting because of the pandemic’s economic consequences. Healthy food availability and affordability, and even nutrition and literacy are influenced by upstream factors (e.g., good paying jobs, quality education and neighborhood access) and community food banks serve as a safety net to our neighbors and communities — helping to feed millions of families in need every year.[i]
At its core, hunger is a systemic consequence of poverty, and food insecurity can impact health, driving obesity, impacting the long-term development of children and even exacerbate type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This is a public health issue driven by the social determinants of health and can be addressed in partnership with others. I am happy to share that there are many healthy food access advocates working to improve the health and food vitality of their communities. While the goodness is plentiful, below are a few initiatives worth sharing, praising and replicating.
Food is Medicine – Fresh Food Pharmacies in Hospitals
(Partners: local food banks, hospital foundations, donors to hospital foundations, hospitals)
Eighty percent of our health is determined by our nonmedical risk factors such as food access, health literacy and nutrition. For many hospitals who conduct community health needs assessments every three years, food insecurity is an emerging theme of identified need. Recognizing this, hospitals and food banks across the nation have joined forces to tackle hunger head on with the hopes of reducing food insecurity and its related chronic diseases. Patients, under the food pharmacy model receive food, healthcare services and receive health education to promote healthy attitudes and beliefs to foster improved health outcomes.
Seeing the positive results of these interventions, health systems like Geisinger, Virtua, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, ProMedica and many more have started collaborative models to put healthy foods directly into the hands of patients when coming in for care. Food pharmacy models have proven to not only reduce food insecurity in established patient populations ranging from 600 patients to 1,000 patients per year but in many hospital food pharmacies all see reduction in emergency department visits and improved primary care attendance. To accomplish this, hospitals are partnering with their foundations to create a model of blended funding to start up these initiatives. Combining hospital community benefit dollars and foundation major donors such as local businesses (e.g., banks, retailers, local organizations who give to hospital foundations), this 50/50 partnership allows for these initiatives to get off the ground more quickly. Blended funding strategies can involve multiple organizations joining together to implement a common program or goal, bringing different funding sources to the table. Now more than ever, Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance issues are being discussed at every company in America. Partnering to launch a food pharmacy costs on average $250,000 annually so these blended collaborations not only advance equity but further strengthen corporate environmental, social, and governance goals.
The Rising of Food Forests – Growing Produce in Browns Mill
(Partners: City of Atlanta, U.S. Forest Service and Community Forest Program (CFP), The Conservation Fund, Area Schools, Community organizations)
Atlanta, Georgia – The city of Atlanta has some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the State of Georgia. In 2019, community residents partnered to take over 7.1 acres in the blighted neighborhood section of Browns Mill. With 36% of neighborhood residents living below the poverty line, the City of Atlanta along with the Conservation Fund and the Department of Parks and Recreation used blended funding to launch this $172,300 food forest which is a 50/50 split between the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program and Cost Share with the City. To date, 2,500 new edible plants have been installed along with 30 raised beds. This project paved way to other spinoff collaborations including community agforesty programs where 15 public agencies later signed up to bring their students in for the planting of edible trees and giving education. This food forest has grown tremendously since its start and today has a variety of partners that provide local schools with the opportunity to receive food forest STEM based outdoor education and experience.[ii]
Farmers Market on Wheels – Bringing Access to Food Desert Communities
(Partners: local grocery stores, hospitals, local nonprofits, USDA, town/municipal leaders, foundations and universities)
Camden, New Jersey – Programs like the Virtua Mobile Farmers Market launched in 2017 and aim to tackle food insecurity but also reduce chronic disease factors. In researching the model of farmers markets, seasonality caused a disruption in access to healthy food items for residents living in food desert communities. The Virtua Mobile Farmers market provides year-round access to communities that would otherwise not have access to fruits and vegetables. Serving over 10,000 market patrons a year, this program reinforces nutrition education, employing a registered dietician to provide nutrition education and ways to use the produce for healthy meals. The program provides fruit on average 50% below average grocery store prices. Thanks to generous hospital foundation sponsors, donations make it possible to ensure year-round discounted produce access. Further, the program accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and provides SNAP matching incentives. Since its start, the Virtua Mobile Farmers Market has become the largest of its kind in the nation[iii].
Food Recovery Systems – Coordinating Reclamation Initiatives
In the U.S, 40% of food goes to waste. That equates to $408 billion dollars and 108 billion pounds of food going into a landfill. Food rescue, or food recovery, is the practice of collecting high-quality food that would otherwise go to waste and distributing it to people facing hunger. Many organizations around the country are working to reduce waste and feed the hungry (e.g., Fill My Plate, Food Recovery Network, Food Hero, City Harvest). Reducing food waste also helps the environment. The carbon footprint of food waste is greater than that of the airline industry which is estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency to be 170 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (million MTCO2e) GHG emissions (excluding landfill emissions) – equal to the annual CO2 emissions of 42 coal-fired power plants.
Santa Clara County, California – The County of Santa Clara Board of Supervisors approved the Food Recovery Ordinance of 2021 which requires cities and counties to adopt this ordinance by January 2022. The law requires implementing programs that will require certain large-scale businesses to recover and donate surplus edible food. The ordinance, intended for unincorporated areas in Santa Clara County, serves as a model for cities within the county to create their own ordinances; it also helps to create a uniform program that is easier to use for businesses that donate food and the nonprofits that distribute it. The Countywide Food Recovery Program in Santa Clara County has also become a model for other jurisdictions throughout the state.[iv] The Food Recovery Ordinance is a solution that generates more healthy surplus food to Santa Clara County’s food-insecure population, minimizes waste that goes to the landfill, and reduces greenhouse gas production.
As you can see from the above initiatives, it takes a village to strengthen our food security ecosystem. Every partnership in every community is unique and not every effort requires grant funding. To meaningfully address food security at times requires advocacy, policy change, volunteers, retail procurement partnerships and communication. Every model can be designed to address the goals, realities and existing resources in your town to build a custom strategy. Through creative programming, diverse philanthropy channels and authentic cross-sector partnerships, like in the Invest Health network, the resources exist to tackle hunger in communities.
[i] Feeding America. Find your local food bank. https://www.feedingamerica.org/find-your-local-foodbank
[ii] The Trust for Public Land. Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill. https://www.tpl.org/sites/default/files/CommunityForestsHandouts/Com.Forest.URBAN.factsht.fin.pdf
[iii] Virtua Launches Mobile Farmers Market. https://www.virtua.org/news/virtua-mobile-farmers-market-kick-off
[iv] City of Santa Clara Press Release. https://news.sccgov.org/news-release/county-santa-clara-board-supervisors-adopts-food-recovery-ordinance
About the Author
Suzanne Ghee, MPA is an award-winning community health leader with 20 years of healthcare and nonprofit experience. Three years ago, Suzanne became an entrepreneur — bringing her social impact talents to companies that want to create lasting value for their communities, customers and employees. Before becoming an entrepreneur, she was Head of Community Health Engagement at Virtua Health System spearheading disruptive solutions to complex health and social issues. Suzanne is known for her creative approach in addressing the social determinants of health and spends a lot of her time in the service of others, while also currently serving on the Board of Trustees to the Food Bank of South Jersey and on the Board of Trustees (Chair) to the Cherry Hill Free Clinic.