Hunger is an urgent threat in North Carolina, even in the best of times. Before the pandemic struck, one in five children in North Carolina lived in families considered “food insecure.” Food insecurity can mean being worried about running out of food before your next paycheck, cutting the size of children’s meals, or skipping meals entirely, all because there wasn’t enough money for groceries. North Carolina has the 10th highest rate of food insecurity in the nation, with nearly 480,000 children without enough to eat. That was before COVID-19 hit.
The coronavirus pandemic is creating more hungry families in NC
The COVID-19 pandemic has already increased North Carolina’s share of food-insecure families, and the worst may be yet to come. In the weeks and months that follow, many North Carolinians will need help to avoid going hungry, stretching the limits of the state’s food banks, food pantries, and other food assistance programs. The emergency food distribution sector is deeply challenged by the need to maintain social distancing, and interruptions to their supply chains. Access to healthy fruits and vegetables will be especially limited in these circumstances.
For all these reasons, Reinvestment Partners joined NC Child and 73 other organizations in a recent letter to the NC House Select Committee on COVID-19. Our request included urging state legislators to allocate $6 million for emergency food relief – but we know that the need will be much greater as this crisis continues to unfold.
Hunger and health are inextricably linked
Food insecurity is associated with poor health outcomes like diabetes and hypertension. Chronic conditions like these increase people’s susceptibility to COVID-19. For people already struggling to afford their doctor’s diet recommendations, the pandemic makes it even harder to get the healthy food they need. These challenges create a vicious cycle that puts additional strain on our healthcare system and economy.
A promising approach to breaking this cycle are “produce prescription” programs. Produce prescriptions give clinical providers and care managers the ability to distribute healthy food benefits to their patients. The idea is to improve overall health by improving diets. Produce prescriptions are a concrete example of the growing movement in healthcare towards recognizing the health risks that come with unmet social needs. Produce prescription programs move beyond simple recommendations, to providing an actual, material benefit that significantly improves healthy food access for patients.
Produce prescriptions in North Carolina
In North Carolina, Reinvestment Partners is a non-profit organization that currently operates a produce prescription program in over 40 counties. The program works in partnership with federally qualified health centers, Duke Health, local health departments, and Food Lion. Patients are enrolled through a care manager at a participating health provider. This can be done over the phone, which meets social distancing requirements and reduces the number of patients coming into clinics and health centers. The funds are distributed electronically each month through Food Lion’s customer loyalty card. With 500 stores across the state, this gives patients increased access to healthy food. Funds can be distributed in real time across a large scale using this technology. Produce prescriptions are a model that can be reproduced regionally and locally with partners of all sizes.
This program is poised to reach thousands of people across North Carolina quickly and efficiently. Produce prescription programs are a proven tool that can help meet the growing need for healthy food, both now and in the months ahead as we work hard to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. Produce prescriptions could function both as an emergency response to hunger, and as a way to reshape how the healthcare sector delivers population health at scale.