Food insecurity refers to the lack of access to nutritionally adequate food which can result in hunger as well as in an increased likelihood of chronic diet-related diseases (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease). Risks associated with these chronic diseases can be lowered with a healthy lifestyle; by limiting access to resources, food insecurity reduces individuals’ power to adopt lifestyle changes. Moreover, food insecure individuals often experience physical, psychological, and economic burdens that further exacerbate these health risks. While programs such as SNAP (more commonly known as food stamps) and food pantries may help decrease food insecurity, this is not enough to solve the problem.
Food insecurity has been a long-standing problem in the U.S. In 2019, 35.2 million (10.5%) people experienced food insecurity. The numbers were higher among lower-income households, African Americans, and Hispanics. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a 60% increase in food insecurity in the U.S.
To address food insecurity among Pinellas County residents, the Community Health Centers of Pinellas (CHCP) partnered with Feeding Tampa Bay (FTB), and the USF Center for Advancement of Food Security & Healthy Communities (CAFSHC) to develop the pilot Food Prescription (Rx) program. With funding from the Humana Foundation, this novel program identifies food insecure patients who are then enrolled in a program that provides them with food vouchers to redeem at the CHCP food pantry and the FTB mobile food pantry. These sites provide fresh produce, shelf-stable pantry goods, and frozen meals weekly.
As part of the pilot initiative, the role of CAFHSC is to evaluate the program and suggest improvements for future installments. If successful, the Food Rx program can be scaled up and delivered at other health clinics. The CAFSHC evaluation team collects longitudinal data, with participating patients being surveyed every three months to measure changes in their food security status, diet, stress, social support, and health indicators (e.g., Hemoglobin A1c). Further, patients are interviewed about their use of the Food Rx program and suggestions for improvements. In doing so, the evaluation aims to determine if patients show an improvement in their diets and the management of their diseases. The evaluation of the Food Rx program will be completed at the end of 2021 and the results will be shared with the CHCP and other health care providers in Tampa Bay, the research community, and the patients.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, programs like this pilot Food Rx project are crucial. As the programs provided by the CARES Act wane, vulnerable populations will continue to struggle with food insecurity. Given this, it is imperative for such programs to be studied to assess their efficacy and effectiveness so that additional programs may be funded, both at CHCP and other community providers.