Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of Americans have come to rely on food banks and pantries. In fact, according to Feeding America, more than 50 million people might have experienced food insecurity – the lack of consistent access to food in order to live a healthy life – in 2020 due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has especially increased hunger among families with children and communities of color.
This holiday season is expected to be especially challenging for those who don’t have enough to eat, Cannon said, due both to higher food prices and limited availability of some foods caused by supply chain disruptions.
Food insecurity is a social determinant of health (SDoH) associated with a variety of costly chronic health issues. Social determinants – which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play – include education disparities, income inequality, unemployment, housing insecurity, access to transportation and other factors.
“Food insecurity can have extensive impacts on overall health,” Cannon said. “In adults, the USDA has found that food insecurity contributes to higher rates of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma, diabetes and kidney disease. And according to a recent study published in the journal American Pediatrics, food insecurity is particularly detrimental to children, related to chronic health issues, reduced access to quality healthcare and increased use of emergency departments.” Hunger may even have a negative effect on children’s mental health.
Cardinal Health’s food pharmacy initiative
Recently, the Foundation launched a food pharmacy initiative, designed to establish long-term partnerships between food banks and healthcare organizations to fight hunger and improve health outcomes in their communities.
Food pharmacies have “the potential to affect the social, economic, and physical barriers to healthy food choices,” according to an article published last year in the American journal of Lifestyle Medicine. They have developed alongside the growing understanding among healthcare professionals of the connectivity between food insecurity and disease prevention, treatment and reversal.
“Through clinic-based food pharmacies, patients can fill prescriptions for free, nutritious foods for themselves and their families, written by their healthcare providers,” Cannon explained. “Patients also get access to cooking instructions, recipe sharing and nutrition coaching, to help foster and sustain healthy eating habits.”
The Foundation initiative began in 2020 with a cohort of five food pharmacy grantees across the U.S. The pilot cohort includes:
Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, in partnership with the Akron Children’s Hospital in Akron, Ohio. This food pharmacy focuses on improving the overall health of food insecure children and their families and refers patients to local food pantries close to pediatric offices to fill prescriptions for healthy foods. The program also refers families to community health workers, as needed, to provide additional assessments of other factors of well-being.
Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico, in partnership with Hospital del Maestro, Hospital Wilma Vazquez and Manati Medical Center in Carolina, Puerto Rico. This program works to improve health outcomes and reduce hospital readmissions for food insecure adults with high blood pressure. Leaders are working to establish permanent food pharmacies in at least two of the partner hospitals.
OhioHealth-Grant Medical Center, in partnership with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, Charitable Pharmacy, Local Matters and Creation Gardens in Columbus, Ohio. This food pharmacy focuses on improving health outcomes in food insecure adults with diabetes and their families; the program ensures that the patients and their families have access to at least 10 meals a week of fresh, healthy foods.
Our Neighbors’ Table, in partnership with Children’s Health Care Practices, Anna Jacques Hospital and Newbury Port Public Schools in Amesbury, Massachusetts. This food pharmacy helps to improve health outcomes for food insecure children and their families.
Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, partnering with Connectus Health and Nashville General Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. This food pharmacy focuses on improving health outcomes for two groups of food insecure patients: Those with diabetes and those who are in cancer treatment.
“Each of the food pharmacies has helped its patients achieve positive health outcomes,” Cannon said. “We’re really proud of their innovative work. Though they originally received two-year grants, we’ve extended their grants for another year so they can work toward achieving sustainability of their programs through new funding streams. They’ll also continue to stay engaged in a national learning collaborative for another year.”
Earlier this year, the Foundation joined forces with Feeding American and announced a second phase of its food pharmacy program, called Food Rx for Health, focused on food insecure patients with type 2 diabetes. (According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, food insecurity is one of the biggest risk factors of type 2 diabetes.)
The 2020 National Diabetes Statistics Report shows that 34.2 million people (10.5% of the U.S. population) have diabetes, and 88 million people (34.6% of the U.S. adult population) aged 18 years or older have prediabetes – a higher-than-normal blood sugar level. Prediabetic patients without access to healthy foods are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
Costs associated with diabetes in the U.S. exceed $240 billion a year, according to the American Diabetes Association.
The following partnerships began their grant-funded work in July 2021:
Mid-South Food Bank, partnering with Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Methodist University Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Mountaineer Food Bank of Gassaway, West Virginia, partnering with the Wheeling Health Right Medical Center in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Feeding Tampa Bay, partnering with Tampa Family Health Center, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in Riverview, Florida.
Northern Illinois Food Bank, partnering with Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital in Geneva, Illinois.
Each of the grantees is focused on improving health outcomes for diabetic and prediabetic patients, including lowered A1C (the amount of glucose in the blood), blood pressure and/or cholesterol.
“Our newest food pharmacy grantees have the benefit of learning from the work of our earlier cohort,” Cannon said. “And we’re learning from all of them. Together, they’re helping us identify and establish best practices for food pharmacy work of the future.”
Fighting hunger in communities around the world
The Community Relations team at Cardinal Health has long encouraged employees to support hunger-fighting initiatives in their communities. “Our employees have a genuine passion for giving back,” Cannon said. “Every year, throughout the year, they make a significant impact by volunteering at food banks and pantries, organizing food drives and delivering meals to those in need."
Earlier this month, employees at the company’s headquarters in Dublin, Ohio, organized a food drive (shown above) and collected more than 2,000 pounds of food for the Dublin Food Pantry. Over the next several weeks, employees in Canada are hosting a holiday food drive to benefit Food Banks Canada; similar activities will take place in communities around the globe where our employees live and work. “Needs in our communities are greater than ever this year,” Cannon said. “Our people are stepping up to help in many ways.”
Cannon and her team have several suggestions for things anyone can do to help feed the hungry this season – and year-round:
Organize a food drive at work: Ask colleagues to drop off nonperishable food (cans of soup and cans of ready-to-eat-food like spaghetti, ravioli and chili are often the most needed foods). Recruit volunteers to deliver the donations to a local food bank or food pantry.
Volunteer at a food bank: Sign up to volunteer at a Feeding America food bank. You may be asked to sort and pack donated foods, deliver meals or make fundraising calls.
Cook up a storm: Lasagna Love is a global nonprofit that helps connect neighbors with neighbors through homemade meal delivery. The organization was launched at the start of the pandemic: today, thousands of people volunteer to cook and deliver meals to those in need in their communities.
Deliver meals to the elderly and the homebound: Meals on Wheels is a nationwide network dedicated to providing food to people in their own homes. Volunteers prepare and deliver nutritious meals, offer a friendly visit and quickly check on the safety of meal recipients.