Those that are most proximal to important issues are best positioned to address them. This means that the people and organizations who are closest to community members – by geography, in frequency, and based on trusted relationships – are natural and necessary leaders in addressing health and equity. While the COVID pandemic amplified the essential roles that food banks and food pantries play in ensuring that members of their communities have what they need to survive and thrive, these organizations have a longstanding history of being pillars in communities with proven strategies to address disparities. Healthy Places by Design is pleased to be in partnership with Feeding America, a national network of 200 food banks and 60,000 partner agencies that addresses hunger as part of a more comprehensive goal for health equity. Traci Simmons, Director for Health Systems Innovation with Feeding America, leads the organization’s Health Equity Training which is in its second year. I had the pleasure of speaking with Traci to share about the training and how Feeding America’s network of partners are prioritizing health equity.
Traci Simmons (TS): Food insecurity is a public health issue. 2020 was undoubtedly a pivotal year for many organizations, including Feeding America. Faced with the fight for racial justice, stark health disparities of COVID-19, and deep impacts of food insecurity in every community in the United States, we knew we needed to do more. While we have been talking about the social determinants of health for many years now, we saw the need to be intentional about also addressing structural determinants and leverage our platform to address the root causes and inequities of food and nutrition security. The purpose of the Health Equity Training is to support food banks in their journeys to set the foundation and increase knowledge on the intersection of food insecurity, health and equity. The training aligns with Feeding America’s commitment to racial equity, diversity and inclusion in recognition that everyone has a role to play in advancing equity. My formal training in public health and passion for food systems change served as a driver for working with my team and many experts in the field to make this training series a reality for our food bank partners.
TS: At Feeding America, health equity means that all people facing hunger have a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible across their lifespan. Food banks and food pantries are critical food anchors within their communities and play a unique role in engaging stakeholders from across many sectors to position food insecurity as a solvable determinant of health. We know that dietary intake is closely linked to health outcomes, therefore the foods that food banks and pantries source and distribute must be health promotive. This is particularly relevant as nearly 80% of Feeding America network food banks are partnering in some capacity with the healthcare sector to continue elevating food insecurity and related social needs. In order for collective systems change to happen, organizations within communities, including food banks and pantries, have to come together to identify solutions.
"Food banks and food pantries are critical food anchors within their communities and play a unique role in engaging stakeholders from across many sectors to position food insecurity as a solvable determinant of health."
TS: The pandemic has demonstrated that there are many challenges food banks and pantries face in their efforts to impact health equity. Common challenges are the economic burden and increased costs of operations and nutritious food sourcing, the urgency of developing partnerships in service of advancing the work of health equity, and sustained funding for health equity activities in the context of food bank and food pantry programming. Food banks and pantries want and need alignment of their long-term goals and visions to address food insecurity and health. Historically, our members have received segmented funding, often with short timelines, which we know presents additional complexities and challenges around program sustainability. Some solutions to address these challenges are ensuring we are utilizing data on community assets and identifying where there may be gaps in services, allowing food banks and food pantries to drive priorities rather than a top-down approach, and working closely with communities themselves to develop plans for seeking longer-term partnerships and program funding opportunities. Alignment of all stakeholders at the outset, and continued relationship and trust-building can guide processes and plans to achieve systems change.
TS: Food banks that have participated in the training series are beginning to embed health equity concepts into their organizational policies and strategic plans. They are also partnering with industries and organizations, like healthcare, which are also aligned with advancing health equity. Most importantly, we see our food banks authentically engaging and incorporating the voices of individuals experiencing food insecurity by ensuring they are key contributors to health equity interventions. Some food banks are implementing Community-based Participatory Research (CBPR) with community members as core team members, testing Community Health Worker models, and developing neighbor advisory boards as a way to have deeper, more meaningful impacts on community change.
TS: Seeing peers who initially entered the training uncertain of how to talk about the racial and health implications of food insecurity increase their confidence and knowledge as the training series has progressed has been truly inspiring. Furthermore, I am excited to see that food banks are putting these learnings into practice in close collaboration with community members, and guiding partners through equitable program development because it will have an indelible impact for years to come. I am humbled at the opportunity to support peers along this journey as I too continue to learn from and alongside them each day.
To connect with and get involved with your local food bank, visit Find Your Local Food Bank.