Health Care Partnerships to Improve Food Insecurity and Health Outcomes

by Brittney Cavaliere, MPH Program Manager, Institute for Hunger Research and Solutions

On behalf of Feeding America and the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Food Bank | Foodshare, I’m excited to share our recently published evidence review that explores the impact of food bank partnerships with health care organizations on food security, diet quality, and health outcomes.

During my first job out of college, I managed the food pantry at an AIDS service organization in North Carolina. We specifically served neighbors living with HIV. I once asked a colleague why so many clients struggled to take their medications as prescribed, and he reminded me of the competing priorities they faced every day. Most of the people we worked with were Black and Latino and had low incomes; they faced housing instability, food insecurity, and transportation barriers – all on top of living with a chronic disease. Their health was important to them, but they often had to wade through many other challenges before they could focus on health or nutrition.

Many of the neighbors we serve across the Feeding America network are experiencing challenges similar to the clients I worked with in North Carolina. Food insecurity impacts health throughout people’s lives and can lead to increased risk for chronic diseases. Compounding this, Black, Latino, and Native American households have higher rates of food insecurity and experience worse health outcomes compared to white households. These inequities have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated both food insecurity and health disparities. Because of this, food banks and health care organizations are increasingly working together to address the links between food insecurity and health, mitigate health disparities, and improve the lives of the clients and patients they serve.

In the last few years, Feeding America has been reviewing evidence to inform its decisions and investments. As a part of this project, the organization developed the Levels of Evidence Framework to assess and compare rigor and effectiveness across a range of tested interventions. Our recent evidence review uses the Framework to identify the core interventions that food banks and health care systems are engaged in as partners – such as diabetes self-management programs in food pantries or food insecurity screenings in health care settings followed by referrals to food pantries. We then reviewed the existing evidence to understand the impact of these programs on food security, diet quality, and health outcomes.

Our hope is that this review helps the network better understand the types of partnerships that exist between food banks and health care organizations, where more evidence is needed, and which interventions are the most promising. Health care providers and systems vary tremendously across the country, and partnerships take time to develop. There is tremendous room, and need, for additional research and evidence to help identify best practices that we can adapt and implement to fit our local context and the needs of our neighbors. We hope this review encourages you to think about new partnerships, expand existing ones, and work with research partners to evaluate the impact of these interventions and build our knowledge base.

I realize now that the AIDS service organization in North Carolina where I worked in 2010 was slightly ahead of the curve. Not only did we have a direct line to our clients’ primary care doctors, we were also a one-stop hub where clients could talk to social workers, treatment adherence counselors, and behavioral health professionals as well as visit the food pantry. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis has demonstrated that partnerships between food banks and health care like this one are more important than ever to improve the health and well-being of the people in our communities.

Brittney Cavaliere is the program manager at the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Food Bank | Foodshare. Brittney supports the work of the Institute by managing programs and conducting research to decrease food insecurity and promote health and well-being. Click here to subscribe to the Institute’s monthly newsletter.