How health plans like UCare, Kaiser tackle food insecurity

By Leslie Small

Food insecurity negatively affects health status and drives up costs, but health plans around the country have helped chip away at the problem by working with their communities and providers to connect individuals to healthy food options.

Representatives from some of these organizations shared some of the successful strategies, and challenges, during a webinar Monday hosted by the Alliance of Community Health Plans.

Food insecurity, according to Feeding America’s Kim Prendergast, is defined as lack of access to enough food for a healthy and active life, and it is associated with a host of chronic diseases. One study found that food insecurity cost the U.S. healthcare system $160 billion in 2014.

For the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based integrated health system Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the need for action is clear: The state has very high rates of poverty and food insecurity, said Leigh Caswell, the director of the system’s Center for Community Health.

Still, the health system didn’t want to strike out on its own. “We don’t want to create new programs; we want to support what exists and expand on what works locally,” she said.

For Presbyterian, that meant working with the organization La Cosecha, which promotes a system of sustainable agriculture in the South Valley region.

Through the partnership, said La Cosecha program director Helga Garza, they have offered monthly bilingual cooking classes for the community; a community-supported agriculture program that that subsidizes 20 bags of fresh, local produce a week for low-income families; a farmer-in-training workshop that does outreach to schools; and a mobile market that fills gaps in food deserts.

Taking fresh, healthy food directly to individuals is also the focus of Minnesota-based UCare’s efforts to fight food insecurity, according to Senior Vice President of Marketing and Public Affairs Ghita Worcester. In an initiative that kicked off in Minneapolis and is slated to roll out to St. Paul, the Twin City Mobile Market–which operates out of a converted city bus–brings healthy food directly to under-resourced neighborhoods at below-market prices.

It wasn’t always easy to work around regulations that weren’t designed to accommodate a market on wheels, she said, but the initiative has produced promising results. Seventy percent of the mobile market’s customers report increased intake of fruits and vegetables, which to Worcester means “we’re changing the behavior of individuals.”

But “the most important finding we’ve had from this is the feedback from customers,” she added, noting that people have indicated they like the affordable prices and accessibility. “Every day that we go out to a location, people are lining up.

Here’s a look at some of the other unique initiatives that health plan leaders detailed:

  • Kaiser Permanente works with Hunger Free Colorado, which Sandra Stenmark, M.D., the physician lead for Healthy Beginnings, describes as an “incredibly effective community partnership” that uses a central hotline to enroll members in government nutrition programs and connect them to other resources. Through two pilot programs in pediatric clinics, Stenmark noted that not only were healthcare providers ill prepared to address food insecurity, they also had little success connecting families to assistance by just providing information cards. So with patient permission, Kaiser provided Hunger Free Colorado with demographic data to conduct outreach, an effort that increased connection to services by a factor of 14.
  • AvMed, a regional health plan, partners with Feeding South Florida in a program that distributes fresh produce to “food deserts” once per month from August to December, involving its own associates as volunteers. With just two events so far, the initiative has served 1,263 families and distributed 34,595 pounds of food, said Ana Eberhard, the director of advertising and brand marketing. AvMed also hopes to roll out similar programs for the companies covered by its health plans, she said.
  • HealthPartners’ “Better Shelf for Better Health,” which began in 2014, transforms food pantries by increasing the visibility and supply of foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The goal, explained Marna Canterbury, the director of Community Health for Lakeview Health, is to preserve clients’ rights to make their own choices while nudging them toward healthy options.

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