Newsroom | Community Health

Woman smiles as she prepares to distrbute food at a food back

Working Toward Hunger-Free Communities

Food insecurity affects people in every county in every state, according to Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger relief organization. 

Recognizing that reliable access to nutritious food is essential to health and wellness, Health Care Service Corporation dedicates a substantial portion of its major grants to Feeding America and many other organizations that buy and distribute fresh food and provide culturally appropriate education and support.

In 2023, HCSC collaborated with Feeding America to launch the Good Jobs Challenge to address root causes of hunger by advancing strategies to ensure every community and each person within it has what they need to thrive. The program focuses on strengthening in-house workforce training programs, connecting workers with quality jobs while establishing employer partnerships to help companies create more opportunities for job seekers and help grow workforce development programs. Thirteen food banks in nine states participated with more 200 job placements anticipated.

The most recent federal data suggests roughly 5% of all food-insecure households had at least one family member — including children — who ate less because they lacked the money or other resources to get food. 

As one of the nation’s most food-insecure states, Oklahoma is trying to ensure its most vulnerable children don’t go hungry. Hunger Free Oklahoma is helping rural schools, churches and community centers become eligible to provide children free and reduced-cost meals through the federal Summer Food Service Program.

A little more than half of Oklahoma students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals, but only about 5% of children participate in the summer meals program, according to Hunger Free’s most recent data.

“We want to make sure that every Oklahoma child has sufficient, nutritious meals three times a day, seven days a week,” says Chris Bernard, Hunger Free Oklahoma’s president and CEO. “Right now, we know that is not happening for many kids, especially rural kids and low-income families.”

The Tulsa nonprofit is among dozens of community organizations Illinois, Montana, New Mexico and Texas supported with more than $9 million in grants targeting food security and other social and economic factors that influence health and wellness. 

“We continue to work in close collaboration with local community organizations and partners, leveraging their knowledge, experience and talents on a local level to help support healthier communities,” says Clarita Santos, HCSC’s executive director of corporate and civic partnerships. “We’re continuing to build on that model, and refining how we believe we can make a difference.”

In the Southwest, the Food Bank of Eastern New Mexico in Clovis is buying nearly 65,000 eggs to distribute to clients. Every month, it buys three pallets of eggs and typically runs out of them by the third week.

“It’s one of our most popular and most requested items here at the food bank,” says food bank director Dianna Sprague. “People intentionally time their visits to the food bank so they don’t miss the eggs.”

In Eastern New Mexico, 1 in 6 residents live in food-insecure households. The eggs supplement the food bank’s inventory and are distributed through its onsite pantry and partner feeding agencies, mobile food pantries and emergency family food boxes.

A little more than 300 miles away, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger is trying to expand services to reduce food insecurity in far West Texas. The food bank serves as many as 1,600 people daily and tries to offer baked goods, dairy products, meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, CEO Susan Goodall says. It’s an immense task because much of what’s provided comes from outside the area. Drivers crisscross the country to bring back food to help people in need.

“We are traveling to all the 48 continental states, and we still struggle to get enough food,” she says. “Our organization has achieved remarkable growth over the past few years. This success presents us with the need for more resources to match our expanding size.”

As the nation’s sixth-largest food bank by distribution, El Pasoans Fighting Hunger serves people at its distribution center, as well as at more than 130 partner pantries and almost 1,000 mobile distribution sites. In 2022, it distributed nearly 94 million pounds of food.

“We have clients who are working two and three jobs and they still don’t make enough money to buy food, medicine and gasoline,” Goodall says. 

To expand services, the food bank is raising $2.5 million for construction of three food processing rooms with refrigeration to prepare, repack and sort food.

Meantime, the organization relaunched a Food FARMacy program it started during the COVID-19 outbreak to help people with chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes gain access to healthier foods. The food bank collaborates with health care providers to identify patients who could benefit from the Food FARMacy program, and its dietitian provides nutrition education and personalized counseling sessions to help patients manage their conditions.

North of Chicago, the College of Lake County Foundation is addressing food insecurity in parts of the county and reducing health care disparities with its Green Youth Farm initiative. Its Lakeshore campus in Waukegan partnered with the Lake County Forest Preserve District to create a one-acre farm, which uses sustainable agriculture techniques and hires high school students interested in careers in agriculture, sustainability and natural resources at CLC.

This season, the Green Youth Farm initiative employed five high school students from Waukegan and North Chicago for six months and produced 7,000 pounds of fresh food. Next season, the initiative wants to hire 20 students and produce up to 20,000 pounds of food for Lake County residents.

“We like to think of the Green Youth Farm as the first step toward career pathways and opportunities in higher education, culinary, horticulture, and health and wellness at CLC and beyond,” says Eliza Fournier, director of CLC’s Urban Farm Center. “High school students from Waukegan and North Chicago are introduced to those career opportunities, receive paid work experience and learn healthy lifestyle habits.”

The effort is part of CLC’s wider Urban Farm Center project opening at the college’s Lakeshore campus in 2025. The $15 million, 24,000-square-foot farm to table facility will include training and education classes, retail areas for local health food growers and sellers, a hydroponic greenhouse and other sustainable features.

“Our ultimate goal is to help re-localize the food system in Lake County so we can be more responsive and resilient in times of change,” Fournier says. “We’re hoping to grow the farmers who will grow the food and the distribution networks that will make food available and increase the consumption of healthy food throughout our county.”

Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company.