March is the month we highlight all that is good about one important aspect of our lifestyle — food and nutrition. After a year like none other, National Nutrition Month is a great time to shed light on food insecurity, a topic of big concern in the United States.
In the news over the past year, you’ve seen the striking images of cars and people snaking around blocks waiting for hours for food distribution they desperately need for their families. Job losses, due to the pandemic, have contributed to a rise in uncertain access to food across the U.S. Prior to the pandemic in 2019, just over 1 out of every 10 families experienced food insecurity, or the disruption in food intake or eating patterns because of lack of money or other resources (1, 2). In 2020, Northwestern University estimated that at its peak this nearly doubled to 1 in 4 households having experienced food insecurity early in the pandemic, with higher rates experienced by Blacks, Hispanics and households with children (3). Food insecurity may result in eating a less healthy, varied, nutrient-rich diet, increase usage of community food pantries or other food assistance programs and, at its worst, my cause hunger due to inadequate food supply.
Since the pandemic hit, job losses have contributed to the rise in food insecurity (4). But the problem isn’t new. While the root causes are complex, prior to the pandemic, lower wages and prioritizing fixed living expenses before food are among the many varied contributors to food insecurity.
Impact on Health and Work:
Those experiencing food insecurity are at risk for negative health outcomes including: learning and developmental problems and deteriorating mental health in children, higher rates of obesity in both adults and children and higher rates of chronic disease in adults ages 18-65 (2,5). Not surprisingly, when food insecure households opt for less expensive, calorie-dense foods that are lacking nutrients to support good health, households experiencing the greatest degree of food insecurity have nearly 25% higher health care expenditures compared to food secure households (5). This cycle of poverty, food insecurity and illness also impact work performance with lower productivity, missed days of work and performance.
Be part of the Solution:
Understand the level of food insecurity in your employee population
Consider approaching employee health risk assessments through a health equity lens by incorporating questions specific to social determinants of health, in other words – those social, economic and physical conditions in which people live, work and play that affect their health and quality of life. One of these conditions includes access to safe and affordable food. Check out the Social Needs Screening Tool by the American Academy of Family Physicians for an example of two food-specific questions to ask.
Kick the stigma by raising awareness of food assistance programs in your area
A large proportion of people needing food assistance do not seek it because of perceived stigma and shame associated with accepting help (6). Join the effort to kick the stigma by raising awareness of local programs and letting employees know that we’re all in this together during this challenging time. Consider ways of increasing not only awareness but access by allowing employees flexibility in making appointments during the work day, as this may be the only time food support is available. Examples of programs for working-age adults and their children found nationwide include:
- School meal programs that provide free or low-cost meals include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program and the Summer Food Service Program. Employees with children can inquire about such programs and their eligibility to participate with their school district. Learn more here.
- Food banks support individuals and families with no cost grocery items and meals. One such way to search for local food banks in your area is to search the Feeding America network of food banks.
- Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (also known as WIC) provides healthy food and nutrition education for low-income pregnant and postpartum women and their children up to age 5. Employees may learn more about this program, the location of the nearest WIC clinic and their eligibility here.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as SNAP) provides nutrition assistance to supplement the food budgets of individuals and families in need. Find more information here.
For additional programs and resources in your area, contact your local County or State Health and/or Social Services Departments for more information. Other programs that may be available to support employees include congregate meal sites, Market Bucks farmers’ market food assistance programs, community gardens or programs through your local Cooperative Extension office, among other organizations that may offer services unique to your area.
Increase access to healthy, nutritious foods through your employee benefits package
Consider ways in which your benefits package may support employees in cutting grocery and other costs. Employee Assistance Programs often have a wide variety of services that help employees navigate stressful life situations, manage finances and may help them offset the cost of some expenses to ensure they have money left for food. Offering a grocery savings program to employees will help employees not only cut food costs, but serve as another way to educate on healthier items eligible for savings.
Provide a healthy food environment at work
Worksite gardens provide a great way to increase employee access to, as well as consumption of, nutrient-packed produce to support their health. Worksite gardens are a great outlet for social connection and physical activity, both of which are crucial to well-being and disease prevention as well as employee performance and retention. Don’t let lack of a green thumb intimidate you! Search for a local Extension Master Gardener near you who can volunteer their garden expertise to help you get started in designing and implementing your garden. It doesn’t need to be a large-scale endeavor, start small with container gardens! Don’t have the space for a garden? Subsidizing employee participation in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) drop boxes of produce at your worksite. CSAs provide a more turnkey alternative that also supports your local economy.
Another option would be to provide free or subsidized fruit and vegetable snacks for employees in break rooms. Make the process seamless by partnering with a produce vendor who can make weekly drops. To ensure those nutritious goodies are well-received by employees, get their buy-in on what foods to include and include fun, creative marketing to increase the hype! Consider other opportunities for offering healthy meals and snacks, such as staff meetings or on a regular basis to boost employee morale. It may just be the only time your employees include produce in their diet all week.
Innovations in health care organizations
Health care organizations are in a unique position to be part of the solution when interfacing with patients. Take, for example, Boston Medical Center’s food as medicine approach when they established the Preventive Food Pantry. Patients screened by medical providers are prescribed bi-weekly food baskets that meet their particular health needs, including fresh foods such as meats and produce from a rooftop garden. Those with food prescriptions also receive nutrition education by a chef/nutritionist on how to incorporate the foods received and eat for particular health conditions at the adjoining Demonstration Kitchen (6). This approach not only remedies an urgent problem, but provides root cause solutions by increasing patient confidence and skills related to preparing healthy foods on an ongoing basis. Locally, Allina Health based in Minneapolis, MN is helping to fight food insecurity by partnering with a non-profit hunger relief organization, The Food Group, to collect healthier food items at more than 50 Allina clinic locations.
Charitable giving for community well-being
If you find that your company and employees are in a position to increase food security in your community there are a lot of opportunities to give. For example, employee well-being or social committees may organize a food drive or volunteer event for a local food shelf, meal packaging or community meal program. Some companies choose to gift employees with an annual number of volunteer hours that employees can use during the workday. Charitable giving campaigns are another way to support organizations unique to your community. Consider contributing a corporate match on an annual or ongoing basis to give the campaign a boost.