In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, many people have food insecurity as they deal with higher medical bills and added daily stressors. Add high unemployment and many people struggle to make ends meet.
According to the USDA, most people in America are food secure (89.5%), but that leaves 13.8 million food insecure, and a subset of 5.1 million experience very low food security. Some subgroups, such as Black families and people in the South, increased more than others.
Economic relief and stimulus packages helped keep many people secure, and SNAP gave people the maximum benefit for a limited amount of time. In your community, you still might have seen an uptick of people choosing between bills, medication, or groceries. All of them are vital to well-being. Everyone has the right to food.
Opening a food security screening and referral program in your agency, especially if you serve a low-income community, is a giant step toward supporting people. However, kicking off such a program can have its share of challenges. True, some people are going to food banks and assistance programs like SNAP, but for others it’s a tough decision. It can also be a burden on resource-crunched agencies. Some communities lack resources altogether to address food insecurity.
Community health workers (CHWs), community health representatives (CHRs), promotores and similar frontline health workers are valuable assets for screening for food insecurity and connecting people to services.
If that sounds attractive, read on for suggestions on how to define training requirements for screening and referrals so you can make sure your clients’ and patients’ needs are addressed. Also make sure to review this article on why training is so important for food insecurity screening programs.
Adding food insecurity screening to your agency
Your agency may one of the many healthcare systems that traditionally build programs to provide dietary counseling. But many neglect to include anything to address food insecurity.
Given the current context, it’s more important than ever to eat nutritiously. Research shows that people with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension who get COVID-19 have worse health outcomes. So if you’re ready to make an impact in your community’s access to proper nutrition, now is the right time.
To help you start a screening program, these are the essential skills your staff needs.
9 Essential Skills for a Food Insecurity Screening Program
- Food insecurity basics
- Social determinants of health
- Food insecurity screening processes
- How to use screening tool kits
- Community needs and assessments
- Financial management
- COVID-19 resources
- Communication skills
1. Food insecurity basics
Training individuals and teams on what food security is should be the first step: having access to enough nutritious foods at all times to lead an active and healthy lifestyle.
Food insecurity happens when people can’t meet those guidelines. Hunger is what happens to a person who hasn’t eaten enough as a result of food insecurity.
Start out training your team of CHWs on the difference as well as what food assistance programs are so they can reach impacted communities. Feeding America provides useful reports since COVID-19.
Provide nutrition education so that employees completing outreach can educate communities on the importance of healthy eating. And make sure your team understands the basics of healthy eating and active living. This knowledge helps them promote healthy lifestyles to clients with this foundation.
This also includes parsing misinformation from scientific information and providing reliable resources. “While there is general agreement that food has an impact on health,” Colin Hung says in the Healthcare Leadership Blog, “the specific foods and their impact on health is often contradictory and confusing. Carbs are good. Carbs are bad. Dairy is good, but not too much. Fruits are good for you, but too much sugar can be harmful…or is it just refined sugar?”
Educating about basics like food groups and individual nutritional needs can also help your patients make healthier choices. These include access to enough fruits and veggies, prioritizing quality protein when possible, and limiting processed foods or chemicals. The most important aspect though, is how to achieve this sustainably with limited resources.
3. Social determinants of health
Factors such as where a person lives, works, and engages with their community have a strong impact on their health. Fully understanding social determinants of health is vital for understanding how and where health inequities happen, as well as how these factors can affect food insecurity and overall health outcomes.
Understanding social determinants is also helpful in recognizing barriers to good health. Many of these are also barriers to healthy food.
4. Food insecurity screening processes
The most vulnerable communities in the current context were also vulnerable pre-pandemic. They’re mainly communities of color, inner city and rural areas, and low-income homes. Unfortunately, these communities generally face battles in health equity. But they deserve visibility when it relates to their health, especially now.
Some programs, like the King County Healthcare and Food Insecurity Learning Network, offer in-depth training that show participants how to sensitively screen.
5. How to use screening tool kits
Feeding America has a useful Food Insecurity Screening Toolkit for healthcare and non-health care professionals to treat food insecurity in individuals. If you are a member of a clinic that is not screening for food insecurity, consider standardizing the Hunger Vital Sign tool.
6. Community needs and assessments
Consider the barriers your communities are facing:
- Are they elderly and in need of delivery services?
- Or maybe they are school-aged children that rely on school lunches?
- Alternatively, does the household have a personal device or stable internet to access a form they need to fill out?
7. Financial management
Likewise, employees will benefit from being able to educate others. Skills like budgeting are helpful during a time of high unemployment. Knowing how to shop in your area is also an important skill that many could take for granted.
8. COVID-19 resources
Right now, the most powerful tool is learning what your community needs and what aid they are eligible to receive. To start, research and compile COVID-19 food assistance resources. Next, encourage your team to learn about assistance on the federal and state levels since COVID-19.
Many programs have expanded eligibility to benefit more users. For a list of COVID-specific resources for community health workers, click below:
9. Communication skills
Again, many are new to experiencing food insecurity. They may feel ashamed, so it is appropriate to let them know that they are not alone. Normalize the need for assistance with communication skills.
Interested in more skills to develop your community oriented staff? Read about how they can advance their career.
CHW Training Bundle
Kickstart your health program with these resources.