Fighting food insecurity through community partnerships

Key takeaways:

  • The pandemic has created more food insecurity for families and communities.
  • Partnerships with food banks get food where it needs to be.
  • Local food banks are the foot soldiers that are feeding those in need.

[5 MIN READ]

Although the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the inequities in communities when it comes to food security, it has shed a stark light on them.

According to Merry Hutton, the regional director of Community Health Investment (CHI) for Providence in the Washington and Montana regions, food insecurity has surfaced more than ever during the pandemic.

Hutton explains, “Food insecurity has certainly been most impactful on our communities because of things like job loss and a lot of kids being at home and having less access to food due to schools being closed. What we really wanted to focus on in the Washington and Montana regions is to identify the community partners that could get to those highest risk and impacted communities. Particularly communities of color, with the focus on American Indians, Black communities and Hispanic communities.”

Food insecurity has certainly been most impactful on our communities because of things like job loss and a lot of kids being at home and having less access to food due to schools being closed.

Partnerships with food distributors in the community are of critical importance. That’s why CHI relies on their “foot soldiers” in food distribution. “We used the vehicles of Montana Food Bank Network (MFBN) in Montana and Northwest Harvest in Washington state to distribute food to those in the hardest-hit communities,” notes Hutton.

Addressing food insecurity at the local level

What is food insecurity? In the simplest terms, it’s described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as: “A lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

Because of the economic pressures from COVID-19, more people than ever did not have access to nutritious food, even during major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In 2020, Feeding America projected that the number of people who would experience food insecurities would rise to a staggering 50 million, which would include 17 million children. Because of the economic pressures from COVID-19, more people than ever did not have access to nutritious food, even during major holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Understanding the health risk of consuming processed food and lacking access to any nutritional foods, the St. Joseph Community Partnership fund (SJCP) donated $1 million just before Christmas. The funds were infused directly into 36 local nonprofit organizations in Providence communities that directly serve the poor and vulnerable.

The way regional CHI partners with its community food banks is to give donations to their partners. Then these organizations directly provide food to organizations like food pantries, senior centers, schools, homeless shelters, group homes and other hunger-fighting groups. 

Providing healthy meals — and hope  

Bringing it closer to home, the regional CHI in Washington and Montana provides support to improve the health and well-being of the economically poor by targeting areas where there are limited resources and food outlets.

Some of the smaller nonprofits and community-based organizations didn’t survive the pandemic. That’s why we wanted to work with a distributor like Northwest Harvest as the most efficient way to get to partners serving our highest-need populations.

Hutton notes that some of the smaller nonprofits and community-based organizations didn’t survive the pandemic. “That’s why we wanted to work with a distributor like Northwest Harvest as the most efficient way to get to the pantries and food distribution partners in those specific communities that are serving our highest-need populations.”

“The Montana Food Bank Network took a different route to address food insecurity,” says Hutton. “It funded the BackPack Program for the Blackfeet and Flathead Reservation. The [$64,000] donation it received from SJCP went toward purchasing enough fare for 16,000 individual food bags for students on the reservations. This is equal to 20 to 25 weeks of weekend food for nearly 1,000 children. That’s for the entire 2021 school year — not just for a few weekends.”

Montana’s foot soldiers of food distribution: Montana Food Bank Network

This is Montana's only statewide food bank and distributes food to over 350 network partners such as food pantries, schools, homeless shelters, senior centers and other hunger-fighting groups. Through its network partner distribution, MFBN supplied over 23 million pounds of food to those in need in 2020.

How partners acquire food

MFBN wants to make it as easy as possible for network partners to get the food they need to distribute. Their partners use MFBN’s online ordering system to view and order food for the next delivery cycle. MFBN delivers food across the state every six weeks, although this delivery schedule was shortened to every four weeks during the first months of the pandemic. This ensured that network partners could meet the growing demand for food.

Statewide programs for Montana’s vulnerable populations

Along with distributing food to partners, MFBN also operates statewide programs that aim to meet the food and nutrition needs of some of Montana's most vulnerable populations. For example, MFBN offers:

  • Mail-a-Meal and Mobile Food Pantry programs that distribute food in unique ways to the most rural areas of Montana. Mail-a-Meal also targets homebound seniors and other people who are living in rural areas without access to food.
  • BackPack and School Pantry programs to improve food security among children.

The BackPack program boosts food security for kids

Leidy Wagener, the corporate and foundation relations manager of MFBN, explains, “We learned from program evaluation surveys that several families with BackPack students say that they either don’t qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs or don’t receive enough assistance to meet their family’s food needs during each month. The BackPack program has stepped in to help keep children fed while easing stress for families on a tight food budget.”

Several families with BackPack students say that they either don’t qualify for federal nutrition assistance programs or don’t receive enough assistance to meet their family’s food needs during each month. The BackPack program has stepped in to help keep children fed. 

Washington state’s foot soldiers of food distribution: Northwest Harvest

Northwest Harvest works to provide equitable access to nutritious food in every community across Washington state. It supports a statewide network of 375 food banks, meal programs and high-need schools. Focused on improving equity in the state’s food system, Northwest Harvest believes everyone in Washington should have consistent access to nutritious food that nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. The organization also aims to shift public opinion and impact institutional policies and societal practices that prolong hunger, poverty, and disparities in Washington state.

Focused on improving equity in the state’s food system, Northwest Harvest believes everyone in Washington should have consistent access to nutritious food that nourishes the body, mind, and spirit. 

How partners acquired and distributed food

Northwest Harvest has greatly increased distribution to meet rising needs. For decades, it’s been proud to serve every county in Washington. The network has partner agencies in 200 communities. In March 2020, with the first shutdowns about to take place, Northwest Harvest and fellow food distributors Food Lifeline and Second Harvest joined the State’s COVID-19 Hunger Relief Task Force.

This type of emergency partnership had never happened before. In the Lead County Strategy, each agency provided food for a third of the state. This came to 13 of the total 39 counties, with 12-pound to15-pound emergency food boxes. By the project’s end in late October, Northwest Harvest had delivered nearly 900,000 boxes.

Statewide programs for Washington’s vulnerable populations

Since March, Northwest Harvest has spent more on purchasing food than they spent in the previous four years combined. The need is that extreme. It has required the entire community to work together to combat the pandemic.

Giving makes a difference to food security

When MFBN receives a donation or grant for their BackPack program, it helps them support and purchase bags for the distribution partners they sponsor. MFBN is able to use donations to the BackPack program to support schools that are located in especially high-need, low-resource and rural areas. MFBN also encourages their local fiscal sponsor partners to fundraise and apply for grants on behalf of their program sites. The funds can help increase their purchasing capacity and maintain it.

People continue to contact us to ask how they can help. The number of messages we received from donors who told us they personally knew people who needed our help was humbling.

Laura Hamilton, chief advancement officer at Northwest Harvest, confirms the power of donations in times of individual and collective struggle. “The outpouring of financial donations has been awe-inspiring,” she says. “People continue to contact us to ask how they can help. The number of messages we received from donors who told us they personally knew people who needed our help was humbling.”

Providence stays focused on care for the whole person

Food security is just one important piece of the whole when it comes to health. As Hutton points out, “At Providence, we see health in a holistic way. Yes, we deliver high-quality health care, but health means so much more. It’s making sure that the whole person is cared for — whether they access food or medications.” In either case, Providence has a network of resources that can introduce individuals to a pharmacy program and food banks for nutritious meals. “We’re deeply committed to this holistic approach to work with our patients and communities,” Hutton states.

At Providence, we see health in a holistic way. Yes, we deliver high-quality health care, but health means so much more. It’s making sure that the whole person is cared for — whether they access food or medications.

Merry Hutton points out that the pandemic illuminated the need to stay focused on the things that create well-being: including where people live, work and play. She encourages her own team and anyone who wants to help through donations and volunteering, “Don’t lose sight of those things.”

Visit the Montana Food Bank Network and Northwest Harvest to learn more about how you can contribute to impact your local community.

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Community Health Investment (CHI)

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Montana Food Bank Network

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Feeding America

St. Joseph Community Partnership fund

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