Addressing Food Insecurity through Creative Employer-Sponsored Benefits
August 14, 2023
Food insecurity is more prevalent in the United States than you might think, and it has wide-ranging implications on health outcomes, GDP, and employee success. In 2020, 13.8 million households were food insecure at some time during the year, and more than 7 million of those households were food insecure despite receiving federal food and nutritional benefits. Moreover, almost 4 million of these households included children. While these numbers are sobering, they do present large employers, especially those who employ a majority of workers with lower incomes with an opportunity; help end food insecurity in the United States through creative and innovative health care benefits policies.
Hunger and health are deeply connected. Adult food insecurity is associated with a host of severe, preventable, and costly health problems such as depression, diabetes, hypertension, and poor sleep outcomes. Hungry children are sick more often than their peers and can suffer from physical, developmental, and cognitive impairments. Ultimately, hunger weakens an individual’s ability to reach their full potential and negatively impacts a company’s bottom line in the long term through increased health care costs. In total, food insecurity harms the economy at large; according to the Feeding America/Children’s HealthWatch report: “Child Food Insecurity: The Economic Impact on our Nation” our economy loses $130.5 billion annually due to illnesses linked to hunger and food insecurity and $19.2 billion in poor educational outcomes and lower life earnings.
What stands in the way of food security? These tenets might sound familiar to health care purchasers, Access, Affordability, and Equity.
- Access: Many workers with lower incomes live in food deserts – census tracts where at least 500 people, or 33% of the population, live more than a half-mile from the nearest supermarket, supercenter, or large grocery store in an urban area, or more than 10 miles from a grocery store in a rural area. With limited access to transportation, it is difficult for families with low incomes in food deserts to make the regular trips necessary to buy healthy food.
- Affordability: While evidence shows that federal food programs such as SNAP and WIC spur the economy and can make food more affordable, they have been historically criticized, questioned, and underfunded. Consequently, they alone are not enough to cover food costs, especially with record-high inflation driving up costs in every sector. In fiscal years 2019 and 2020 SNAP averaged less than $1.40 per person, per meal. SNAP benefits are also fixed across the United States, despite great variation regionally in food cost. As a result, even with a benefits amount update in 2021, the maximum benefit still fell short of the cost of meals in 21% of U.S. counties.
- Equity: Race and ethnicity play a major part in the likelihood of a household experiencing food insecurity. In 2020, 21.7 percent of Black households experienced food insecurity, as did 17.2 percent of Hispanic households, compared with 7.1 percent of White households. These disparities are not random or coincidental; deep structural inequities—such as wage and wealth gaps, elevated poverty rates, biased hiring practices, redlining, education access, and disparate and racialized access to food—have created this reality.
What can employer-purchasers, especially those with a majority of workers with lower incomes do to better support their employees and manage health care costs?
- Partner with Online Grocery Delivery services to make food more easily accessible. For instance, in 2022 Instacart announced its new product, Fresh Funds. Through this program, employers can fund category-specific stipends for nutritional foods, and employees can purchase and have these supplemented groceries delivered through the Fresh Funds app. Employers can contract directly with Instacart’s Fresh Funds program to provide this benefit to their employees.
- Supplement SNAP and WIC benefits through benefits cards. One example of this type of offering is Optum’s Healthy Food Benefits Program. Optum, the pharmacy division of UnitedHealth Group, has begun offering healthy benefits cards as a benefit employer-purchasers can add to their offerings. Organizations can explore whether this is an option their health plans offer.
- Support non-profit organizations that are tackling food insecurity through community food kitchens. Through corporate social responsibility programs, large organizations can contribute financially to support local organizations working to provide regular, healthy meals to those in need.
- Invest in employee rental assistance programs. There are many avenues to creative employer-sponsored rental assistance that can help ensure that all employees, especially workers with lower incomes have a space to call their own. According to a recent report from the YSPH Housing and Health Equity Lab, there is a link between rental assistance and food security.
- Partner with innovative point solutions. For instance, Good Measures, a digital health company, announced the launch of its Good Food Prescription program in 2022. This program partners with Instacart’s new product, Care Carts, making it easier for health care providers to prescribe individually tailored diet plans for employees with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure.
Food insecurity – which harms both the U.S. economy and bottom lines of individual companies – is a critical social determinant of health that requires a multi-pronged and regionally tailored approach to solve. Employer-purchasers must not wait in the wings, but step boldly out into the spotlight and tackle this real and pressing issue head-on. Through creative benefits policy and strategy, we can ensure that, in the future, no one in America goes hungry.
CPR’s Marketing and Operations Manager, Torie Nugent-Peterson wrote this blog post.