States Take Action to Address Food Insecurity

April 10, 2019|5:52 p.m.| ASTHO Staff

In 2017, one in eight Americans experienced food insecurity. Food insecurity has a direct impact on physical and mental health status, educational attainment, and life expectancy. Public programs are in place to help families access foods, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. States are also exploring strategies to more effectively leverage these resources, increase enrollment, and ensure there are vendors and locations available to dispense these resources.

Variety of Locations and Vendors

States are pursuing legislation that would introduce new sites and locations to access healthy and fresh foods. This includes allowing SNAP and WIC benefits to be used at farmers markets as well as co-locating services. This year, Washington state (SB 5583) and Montana (LC 1225) introduced legislation to allow the use of WIC benefits at farmers markets after finding that WIC program participants reported difficulty in affording and accessing healthy foods. New Jersey (SB 3237) is pursuing a pilot program through the state’s department of agriculture which would establish weekly, year-round farmers markets in three food desert communities, one of which will be located in a rural area and must accept food vouchers. In addition, Vermont introduced House Bill 402, which would initiate a pilot program for food-insecure veterans and their families who are accessing healthcare services at the Vermont Veterans’ Home by creating an onsite healthy foods market that procures food from local farms operated by veterans, the Vermont Food Bank, and other community partners.

In addition, states are exploring ways to support SNAP and WIC vendors. In Illinois, HB 2539, for example, would create a healthy food development program within the state department of agriculture, in partnership with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and with assistance from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The program would provide financial assistance (e.g., grants, loans, tax credits) to small food retailers in areas with “insufficient grocery access.” In Texas, SB 574 would similarly provide a tax credit to grocers who open a store in a low- or moderate-income food desert, with the provision that it also accepts WIC and SNAP program benefits.

Streamlined Enrollment

Another state strategy to address food security is to focus on improving access to state and federal food security resources, including ensuring state residents are aware of and able to connect to existing resources through streamlined enrollment processes. For example, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services runs MI Bridges, a single platform for the state’s food assistance program, cash assistance, Medicaid, child care, and state emergency relief applications. The system also connects with Michigan 211 to map available community resources for individuals based on their home address. In addition, the state WIC eligibility system checks for Medicaid eligibility. Similarly, in early 2019, New Jersey’s legislature passed joint resolution 175 urging the state’s chief innovation officer to prioritize the enhancement of the NJOneApp to include streamlined enrollment of all state anti-hunger programs.

Data Matching

Data matching between SNAP, WIC, and other data sets is another strategy to ensure eligible individuals are enrolled in appropriate programs. For example, California matched CalFresh (the state’s food assistance program) and WIC data to determine that there were 40,000 families in the state who were eligible for WIC but not participating, revealing an opportunity for additional outreach and enrollment support activities. In addition, Montana’s Department of Public Health and Human Services, which oversees the WIC program, is launching a pilot to match WIC and SNAP data to identify families with children eligible who not participating in WIC. The state agency will then send a text message to the family and WIC agencies will follow up with interested households.

Leadership from Corner Office

Taskforces and work groups mandated by state governors and legislatures can serve as a framework to align state resources and measure statewide progress on food security improvement goals. For example, the Pennsylvania governor issued a 2015 Executive Order that brought agencies together to address food security with community partners, resulting in the Blueprint for a Hunger-Free Pennsylvania. The blueprint aims to meet certain benchmarks in SNAP and WIC enrollment and improve access to anti-hunger resources by 2020. Strategies include co-location of WIC agencies and Head Start locations, mailing WIC brochures to Medicaid-enrolled households when a newborn joins a family, and ensuring every HealthyChoices managed care organization has a food security program.

Similarly, in 2014, the Nevada governor issued an executive order establishing the Governor’s Council on Food Security within the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. In addition, the state legislature introduced language in the 2019 legislative session to codify the structure of the council. The council aims to align and enhance collaboration among state agencies to strengthen food security strategies, increase participation in state and federal nutrition programs, strengthen the state food system, and enhance data collection strategies to track progress in meeting state goals.

Other examples include Missouri’s House Bill 1201, which proposes a cross-agency food security taskforce, as well as Washington state’s House Bill 1731, which proposes a public-private food policy forum to increase collaboration between local, state, and federal agencies and the development of statewide recommendations to improve food security.

State public health and related agencies—including departments of agriculture, economic development, human services, and Medicaid—often have distinct programs, missions, and decisionmaking architecture. However, the issue of food insecurity can serve the interests of each agency and provide an opportunity to improve alignment and communication across stakeholders. ASTHO will continue to track state legislation and related activity on this cross-cutting population health challenge.

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