We live in an era when having a job is no longer a reliable measure of whether or not a person is in need, and soaring food prices are now adding to the challenge of putting healthy meals on the table.
A recent Hunger Free America report found that, in the United States, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, 9.7 percent of working adults have difficulty getting enough food or having balanced meals due to a lack of financial resources. In North Carolina, that number was higher, at 10.9 percent. And the pandemic has made it even more clear that anyone can experience financial shocks.
Food insecurity isn’t necessarily starvation. Sometimes it looks like working parents sacrificing a meal or food quality to ensure their children can eat. Other times, it looks like an individual with health issues struggling to afford the nutritious foods necessary to get better. The pressures of work, often multiple jobs, and caring for children and family members force low-income households to make difficult choices and rely on inexpensive fast-food meals and convenience foods, often loaded with salt, sugar, and preservatives instead of healthy meals featuring fresh fruits and vegetables. As a result, hardworking people living through minor setbacks can end up dealing with long-term health effects.
The good news is that we already have an effective resource to help: the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), known as Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) in North Carolina. These benefits average out to roughly just $1.40 per meal. However, this extra addition helps children to develop physically and intellectually; students to focus on coursework instead of hunger pangs; and adults to prevent or manage chronic conditions closely associated with malnutrition. The USDA recently increased the average SNAP benefit, a further step toward addressing the food insecurity people face today.
Unfortunately, many who are eligible for SNAP benefits aren’t enrolled, either from lack of awareness, fear of stigma, or difficulties with the application process. Many individuals might assume they’re not eligible because they are employed and have never received federal assistance before. In North Carolina alone, an estimated 540,000 individuals are eligible but not enrolled in this vital program.
Investments to engage those households could transform many lives. Recent efforts by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) and Benefits Data Trust (BDT) demonstrate how collaboration can be key to reaching these households. BDT and Blue Cross NC are working together to reach those potentially eligible for FNS/SNAP by mail or email or through direct contact with Blue Cross NC social workers to direct them to BDT’s contact center. Trained BDT specialists at the center walk eligible individuals through the complicated enrollment process, offering needed support with dignity and empathy to alleviate any fear of stigma from participation. These efforts focus on working North Carolinians—including Blue Cross NC members enrolled through the Affordable Care Act—who may struggle to make ends meet, despite having a job.
Since the collaboration launched in 2020, Blue Cross NC and BDT have secured $8 million in FNS/SNAP benefits for more than 6,700 North Carolina households.
Nationally, food insecurity is associated with an annual bill of $146 billion in direct medical costs and lost productivity, but there is hope. A growing body of research shows that FNS/SNAP recipients are healthier, miss fewer days of work, require fewer visits to a medical provider, and are less likely to skip necessary health care to put food on the table, compared to those who do not receive assistance. Over the course of a year, an adult with low income who participates in FNS/SNAP will incur roughly $1,400 less in medical care costs than someone who does not participate. Cost savings are even higher— $2,360 per person a year—for people 65 and older.
Blue Cross NC and BDT’s partnership illustrates how the health-care industry can work with the nonprofit sector to increase participation in an underutilized resource like FNS/SNAP. Similar partnerships could improve health outcomes, reduce avoidable care costs, and elevate quality of life for North Carolinians. It’s crucial that organizations committed to the health and well-being of individuals and their communities intensify their commitment and expand their vision of who needs help.
John Lumpkin, MD, MPH, is the vice president of drivers of health strategy for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and Trooper Sanders is the CEO of Benefits Data Trust.
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