A look at community-based health care organizations’ proven-successful approaches to address food insecurity.

The pandemic has radically exacerbated food insecurity and disproportionately impacted those most vulnerable, including racial and ethnic minorities, low-income populations, and those with chronic conditions.

Grappling to improve food access, community-based organizations (CBOs) and health care systems across the U.S. had to find innovative ways to meet the needs of their communities.

The National Program Office (NPO) for the Bridging the Gap: Reducing Disparities in Diabetes Care initiative, a project funded by the Merck Foundation to work with health and social service organizations to address the needs of patients with diabetes, has identified four common strategies that contributed to the success of the CBO programs, according to a Health Affairs blog post.

The successful programs:

1. Embed food distribution in hospitals and clinics.

Food distribution in health care settings offers several benefits, including prompt delivery for those in urgent need, patient convenience, opportunities to further food skills and nutrition education, and the reinforcement of institutional trust, explained NPO co-authors.

2. Design food access programs to address systemic barriers for immigrant populations.

Multi-faceted nutrition assistance programs are necessary to support immigrant populations who typically face eligibility and benefit restrictions to federal nutrition assistance programs and Medicaid.

3. Strengthen communities’ economic vitality.

Leverage programs that provide food access and support the local economy simultaneously to address food insecurity as well as poverty, which directly impact one another, noted co-authors.

4. Progress cross-sector collaboration.

Cross-sector collaboration between organizations in the social service, health care, agriculture, philanthropic, and government sectors is the “vehicle of change” required to address complex issues within food insecurity, such as food delivery systems, modifications of agricultural and nutrition assistance programs, and compensation, education, and employment opportunities.

A few of the successful programs at the community level NPO co-authors discovered through their analysis included a health center in California that hosts an on-site food pantry for patients to choose from a variety of staple foods, produce, and meats; an FQHC that provides food distribution to its Latinx communities in the District of Columbia. and Maryland in their preferred language and food that reflects cultural preferences; a “farmacy” program in Kentucky that provides food insecure individuals with “prescriptions” that they can redeem in markets for fresh, local produce, in turn supporting local farmers; and a community health care collaborative in New Jersey that partners to address structural, logistical, and policy-related issues that impact food access.

Though program operation details will vary based on a community’s needs, organizational infrastructure, and staff capacity, the NPO co-authors emphasize the critical role of CBOs in program development due to their longstanding partnerships across sectors as well as health care providers and clinical staff, who are essential “conduits” to community resources.