Addressing Hunger as Part of Health

Early on a cold Saturday morning, a man waited his turn at a mobile food pantry in Albuquerque. It was his first stop that day to take care of the needs of his wife and their two grandchildren.

“My retirement income doesn’t cover everything they need,” said the former truck driver, who identified himself only as Jefferson. “Before coming here, I’ve wondered how I would feed them properly. It’s embarrassing to say this, but there were times we would visit car dealerships to eat a meal. They would have their cookouts on weekends with hot dogs and hamburgers.”

Like Jefferson, about 40 million Americans live in households that don’t always have enough food for everyone in the family, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

”The consequences of food insecurity affect individuals across their lifespan,” said Jessica Hager, manager of health and nutrition for Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization.

The cost of food insecurity

Working-age adults who often go without enough food are at least 40 percent more likely to suffer from long-term health problems, according to a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Even less severe food insecurity, according to the study, is associated with several chronic diseases. They include hypertension, heart disease, cancer, asthma and diabetes.

We are in the business of providing health and financial security, and you can’t do that if there’s not food security as well.

These conditions undermine the health and financial well-being of individuals and families. They also add to the cost of health care and health insurance.

A place at the table

In October, Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas announced they are joining forces with Feeding America. A $1.2 million investment over two years builds on the Plans’ longstanding commitment to addressing food insecurity.

In 2017, the Plans supported organizations that distributed more than 2 million pounds of food to 750,000 adults and children in their states as part of the Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® grant initiative.

“We are in the business of providing health and financial security, and you can’t do that if there’s not food security as well,” says Joel Farran, senior vice president and chief brand officer of the five Blues Plans.

[Related: With Affordability Cures, an Investment in Lasting Change]

Under the new collaboration with Feeding America, 26 food banks and pantries in their states are getting support to increase access to nutritious foods and improve diet quality. Each food bank will choose programs best for its community’s needs, such as:

  • Placing fresh produce, dairy and protein in areas with high visibility and using signs encouraging healthy food selection
  • Using community food kitchens to train adult members of food-insecure families for jobs in the food service industry
  • Providing pantries with nutrition guidelines

“The poor often have to make difficult tradeoffs when it comes to shopping for food,” said Sonya Warwick, community director for Albuquerque-based Roadrunner Food Bank. Roadrunner is one of the organizations taking part in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan’s collaboration with Feeding America.

“Nearly two-thirds of households say they must choose between either paying for utilities and transportation or for food when it comes to using their limited funds,” Warwick said. “And that doesn’t even include needing to pay for housing and health care. Food banks give the hungry the extra cushion they sometimes need to feed their families.”

The five Blues Plans are also preparing to work with the Blue Cross Blue Shield InstituteSM to help people who live in nutritional deserts — communities that lack access to fresh fruit, vegetables and whole foods that make for a healthy diet.

According to the Institute’s CHM Hub® platform, 1.5 million Blue Cross and Blue Shield members in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas live in nutritional deserts.

[Related: A New Approach to Solving Health Disparities]

Extending a helping hand

Twice a month, 76-year-old Louis Buard visits Our Community Pantry in South Dallas to put food on the table for him, his wife, two sons and a grandson. He says they struggle monthly with deciding how to spend his Social Security check. Though in the heart of a major U.S. city, his neighborhood is considered a food desert.

Our Community Pantry gets food from the North Texas Food Bank, one of the organizations taking part in the Blues Plans’ collaboration with Feeding America.

“We don’t throw any food away in our house,” Buard said, leaning on a staff engraved with his nickname, Moses, as he shopped the pantry. “Money can be tight. I pay for utilities first, like shelter, so that we have a place to sleep. After that comes medicine and food.”

Feeding America and its partners are working toward long-term solutions that will eliminate these damaging tradeoffs, Hager said.

“Recognizing food insecurity is a social determinant of health, it’s very important that we work with communities hand in hand — in addition to health care partners — because together we can end hunger.”


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