Every day in America, families go hungry. Federal initiatives enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic provided some relief by temporarily changing enrollment and usage requirements. However, food insecurity remains one of the biggest public health challenges in our nation.
More than 38 million people, including 12 million children, in the United States were food insecure in 2020, and those numbers have likely increased. Low-quality and insufficient food can have dire consequences, especially for young children. Poor diets have been linked to diminished growth and cognitive development, as well as lower utilization of health services and reduced attendance at school.
Inflation, which disproportionately impacts low-income families, is worsening the situation. For a family earning $20,000 a year, a $1,000 increase in the annual food budget represents the equivalent of 5% of annual income. People are forced to make agonizing choices between maintaining a vehicle, keeping the lights on or buying food.
However, there are things we can do today—without major investment or effort—to help people get the proper nutrition they need.
Use data to help members receive their available benefits
Many women receive food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but may not be aware of the fuller benefits available to them through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). As Medicaid enrollment has grown in the past few years, WIC participation has declined—even in the face of growing hunger.
To ensure that women are receiving the benefits they quality for, states could use the information that already exists in their systems to qualify women for WIC. If women are already receiving Medicaid or SNAP, we know that they meet the income eligibility requirements for WIC. In addition, Medicaid claims data on a new birth could trigger a benefits evaluation to ensure that the family is receiving WIC benefits for the additional child.
Share information between agencies and organizations to meet whole-person needs
Families on Medicaid will often be facing other challenges, from housing to hunger. Systematic screens for food insecurity among Medicaid beneficiaries could be an important factor in the fight against hunger. Greater data sharing among state agencies, as well as closer coordination with community food organizations, would make it easier to qualify for and enroll in programs. We should do a better job of looking at the whole person and addressing needs across the entire life spectrum.
Provide incentives for healthier eating habits and behaviors
When people clearly understand the link between diet and overall wellness, they make smarter choices. To encourage healthier lifestyles, a nutritional rewards program could give incentives to people who use their benefits to offer better meals to their families. This program could include a center where daily activities are logged for points and rewards. Smart scales could track weight loss, and this data could be shared with WIC clinics to monitor improvements.
Use existing technology solutions to enhance diets
For people who live in “food deserts,” Uber Health could drive them to grocery stores with more fresh choices. At least one state is experimenting with “meal kits” that are easy and quick to prepare. Online community forums could allow people with common challenges to solve them together by answering questions, making recommendations and providing emotional support. We should also continue to encourage the use of free apps that help members use their benefits for better diets. Apps like WICShopper and Providers (formerly Fresh EBT) allow people to view their balances, compare food prices, find healthy recipes and more.
The hunger problem seems to be growing every day. Through increased coordination and advanced technology tools, we can work to educate beneficiaries about healthier diets, provide access to more nutritious choices and put food on the table for families in need.
Special thanks to Gainwell Intern Lissy Pimentel for her contributions to this article.