Rising Food Insecurity Leads to Innovative Strategies

An abundance of healthy selections. Clearly identified nutritional labeling. The possibility of pre-ordering. Fresh produce and meat.

Connecticut’s 364,040 hungry people — one in 10 residents — are increasingly likely to find these and other grocery features in their local pantries.

Across the state, more appealing ways to combat food insecurity — a condition characterized by insufficient access to nutritious food on a regular basis — are replacing stereotypical old pantries housed in dark, oversized spaces. a closet in isolated places. frequently lined with otherwise unwanted food cans and opened irregularly depending on volunteer availability.

“We’re trying to put some humanity behind the numbers and recognize that each of those numbers is an individual and going through a tough time,” said Katie Martin, former executive director of the Foodshare Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions, a resource for food banks and community partners.

For many Connecticut residents, coping with the pandemic without a stable job or the availability of free or reduced school lunches meant crossing the threshold into food insecurity. Compared to 2018, levels of food insecurity in 2020 were high in all counties in Connecticut – from 12.8% of the population in Tolland to 16.2% in New Haven to 17% in New London, according to a report from the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research. But even during the darkest days of the pandemic, new and more effective ways to respond to food insecurity have taken hold across the state.

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“During COVID, working-class residents were a check or two away from food insecurity,” said Julieth Callejas, Acting Executive Director of End Hunger Connecticut! (EHC!), a statewide organization. Callejas says she and her professional peers found that pantries weren’t being used as efficiently as they could be. So EHC! stepped up, working harder and smarter to meet growing demand in a variety of ways.

In the spring of 2021, in collaboration with local food pantries, EHC! launched the Full Shelf initiative, establishing a buying group to secure price contracts for the estimated 30% of food needs not covered by the existing food bank or donation process. “It’s pantries that help pantries by networking and buying in bulk at discounted prices,” Callejas said. “There are about 800 food pantries in Connecticut. We are connected to over 200 of them.

In June, thanks to funding from the American Rescue Plan, EHC! entered into a new partnership with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture that has expanded its CT Fresh Match program, which enables Connecticut Farmers’ Markets to double customer purchases made through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits ). In June, 28 Connecticut farmers’ markets, farm stands and mobile markets participated in CT Fresh Match, many of which are within reach of residents who need help the most. In Bridgeport, for example, seven farmers’ markets that are part of the community’s Farmers Market Collaborative are in neighborhoods considered “nutrition insecure”.

Increasingly, meeting residents where they are is a concept that goes beyond neighborhoods.

Meet people where they are

In May, Hartford Hospital held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its Food as Medicine Center. Intended to resemble a grocery store, the center provides patients with free access to healthy foods prescribed by their caregivers.

Dr. Jessica Hsieh Mullins, director of gynecology at Hartford Hospital, said in November 2019 the hospital began screening prenatal patients for food insecurity. Initially, about 25% were food insecure.

“As the pandemic progressed, the percentages increased,” Mullins said. “Now we’re at 50 percent.”

Mullins says food insecurity correlates with inappropriate weight gain during pregnancy, a risk factor for gestational diabetes and other complications that can harm maternal health.

TEEG uses a customer-centric approach in their pantry called SWAP (Supporting Wellness at Pantries) to combat food insecurity. They classify foods on the shelves according to their nutritional value to help customers make healthy choices. The healthiest choices are on the top shelf. Cloe Fish / C-HIT.ORG

TEEG uses a customer-centric approach in their pantry called SWAP (Supporting Wellness at Pantries) to combat food insecurity. They classify foods on the shelves according to their nutritional value to help customers make healthy choices. The healthiest choices are on the top shelf.

In a pilot program involving 20 patients, participants who are screened as food insecure have weekly access to the hospital pantry and one-on-one counseling with an on-site nutritionist. The department found a 50% reduction in inappropriate weight gain among participants who received nutritional counseling before the availability of the on-site pantry that offered healthy food choices.

“It’s really encouraging,” said Mullins, who adds that they hope to eventually offer this service to all patients who qualify.

A dignified approach

This customer-centric approach to addressing food insecurity is gaining traction across the state. Martin said Connecticut Foodshare surveyed state residents last year. “A lot of people say they don’t want to rely on others for help. They would feel embarrassed to ask,” she said. Foodshare workers use this information to develop ways to make the process more dignified and share these strategies with their network, which includes several partner sites in Greater Hartford.

Chelsea French, TEEG’s community program manager, stocks the shelves. Food Systems Coordinator Carl Asikainen and volunteer Mike Kingman help sort the food delivery. Photo Cloé Fish.

Promoting customer choice is central to this strategy. Rather than prepackaged foods, a growing number of food pantries are offering options on shelves that look like those in a grocery store, said Martin, who launched a new consulting organization, More than Food Consulting, LLC in August.

The organization of shelves is essential. Using a research-based tactic called SWAP (Supporting Wellness at Pantries), foods are nutritionally categorized by saturated fat, sodium, and sugar and are easily tagged with red, yellow, and green labels. Martin said ranking foods according to their health value is only part of the process. “We’re also putting more energy into asking people about their cultural food preferences,” she said.

All of these efforts make the process more “transformational than transactional,” Martin said. She says TEEG (Thompson Ecumenical Empowerment Group, Inc.), a nonprofit social service agency in North Grosvenordale, has adopted this model.

The non-profit organization offers services to families in need, including a diaper bank and assistance with fuel and energy. Anne Miller, executive director of TEEG, says staff members are looking for opportunities to support customers in any way they can. “When the community market is open, we have a case manager who greets people, registering them,” she said. “They might say, ‘I know you have three children; would you be interested in our youth programs? »

The three community markets operated by TEEG that Miller refers to were once called food pantries. She says the new versions, which apply the SWAP method of food categorization, consistently offer frozen meat, fresh produce, milk and other dairy products. TEEG also makes home deliveries for customers who cannot make it to the market.

Miller sees the food program as a way to reduce food insecurity and build trust with community members who could benefit from assistance in other ways. “We are the conduit, the pipeline,” Miller said. “Before, it was from neighbor to neighbor. We no longer know our neighbors.

This story was originally published on August 15, 2022 by the Connecticut Health Investigation Team.

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