Food insecurity directly impacts the health of Hoosiers and is one of the greatest social needs in our state. Rachel Lane, chief transformation officer at FSSA, talks about this issue and how changes made in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have influenced current and future policy and delivery systems.
Q: What is food insecurity and how does it impact a person’s health?
A: Food insecurity occurs when there is lack of access to quality healthy food for all members of a household and is due to limited financial resources. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity in Indiana was 13.2%, which was higher than the national average of 12.8%. The pandemic is expected to increase that number for Indiana by as much as 20%. Families struggling with food insecurity frequently are required to make financial trade-offs. For example, a family struggling with food insecurity may decide to forgo rent or medication, which directly impacts health outcomes. Some short- and long-term health outcomes linked to food insecurity include increased risks of birth defects, anemia, lower nutrient intakes, cognitive problems, aggression and anxiety. Food insecurity also can lead to higher risks of being hospitalized and poorer general health.
Q: What are some resources for people with food insecurity in Indiana?
A: Primary resources for food insecure people in Indiana include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and food pantries.
SNAP is designed to provide between one- and two-thirds of a person’s required food supply. WIC focuses on safeguarding the health of low-income women, infants and children up to age 5 who are at nutrition risk by providing nutritious foods to supplement diets, information on healthy eating, and referrals to health care. The NSLP is the nation’s second largest food and nutrition assistance program. Eligible students can receive free or reduced-price lunches based on a family’s eligibility. Last, but not least, is our state’s network of charitable food pantries. Pantries provide multiple options for families to obtain access to nutritious food.
Q: FSSA recently made it possible for SNAP recipients to use their Hoosier Works EBT cards to purchase groceries online for delivery. Was that enhancement in the works prior to the pandemic?
A: This new enhancement was part of our long-term strategy, but it became evident during the pandemic that it needed to be addressed immediately. The option of food delivery was critical as many SNAP recipients already were struggling with transportation issues.
Q: More than 5,000 online orders were placed within the first 36 hours of SNAP benefits being available for online grocery purchases. What is significant about that response?
A: Whether or not we receive SNAP benefits, many of us faced barriers to accessing food during the pandemic. This change and the response to it demonstrate how a small change can quickly eliminate barriers. This decision made a lot of sense and reflected how technology can be optimized to eliminate barriers.
Q: How does this change address the problem of food deserts?
A: It’s another way we’re working to eliminate barriers as it minimizes the inequities for people who live in areas without grocery stores nearby. However, it doesn’t eliminate all barriers. For some people, technology is yet another barrier. Not everyone has a computer, although many do have smartphones and can go to community centers or other places to access free WIFI.
Q: During the pandemic, as FSSA shifted how it delivered services, what have you learned? Are there other things that will permanently change as a result?
A: As an organization, we learned that we were both flexible and agile at many levels: technology, administrative and policy. We also learned the power of collaboration and working across various agencies and sectors to quickly develop innovative solutions. We achieved this by partnering with the state health department, the Indiana Department of Education, and a multitude of charitable organizations to mobilize a statewide food network. Our next step is to determine how to make this collaboration permanent by developing ongoing strategies that ensure the right measures are in place to immediately respond to emergencies.
Q: What policies do we need to pursue to better meet the health and well-being of those with food insecurity in our state?
A: To reduce food insecurity, we’ll need to continue to pursue policies that provide greater access and affordability. Online purchasing is a step in the right direction, however, there is more work to be done. We also continue to support usage of SNAP Benefits at Farmer’s markets. The next step is to explore how to leverage local relationships to provide home delivery of fresh produce. We should evaluate additional innovative ways to deliver benefits and services. For example, SNAP benefits are currently distributed monthly. Would weekly or bi-weekly distributions allow recipients to buy more fresh produce, which is far more nutritious than most processed foods with longer shelf-lives? We also need to be willing to continually ask how we can do this better.
Q: We all know that culture affects food selection. How does this impact lower-income families?
A: One’s culture and home environment have a big impact on healthy eating. Families with limited resources may be forced to choose quantity over quality. Unfortunately, that can mean less healthy food choices as healthier selections often cost more. To address this, we need to meet Hoosiers where they are within their culture and experiences. We need to engage them in conversations on healthy eating and provide opportunities for healthy affordable food options. We also know that families need assistance in how to use and prepare unfamiliar foods as well as how to prepare familiar foods using healthy substitutes. The Indy Hunger Network provides a program called Cooking Matters that focuses on teaching individuals to prepare unfamiliar foods as well as how to prepare food in a healthier manner. Changing a person’s eating habits is a challenge. However, by providing education and awareness of what foods best promote health, one’s favorite foods can be enjoyed with modifications and moderation. Another great resource individuals can access on nutrition is the SNAP Education Program. And of course, all Indiana residents need equitable access to fresh and healthy foods.
Food insecurity is one of the greatest social needs in our state, directly impacting the health and well-being of countless Hoosiers. Food is one of life’s basic necessities. While access to affordable food is critical to all of us, the quality of our food also plays a significant role in our health. Access, affordability and education are all necessary components to safeguarding men, women and children who are at nutrition risk.