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Aetna Medicaid backed study finds school pantry programs help with food insecurity

September 10, 2020

Aetna Better Health of Florida’s School Pantry Program collaboration with Feeding South Florida played a key role in addressing the growing trend of food insecurity in the communities it serves

As National Hunger Action Month kicks off this month, it’s important to note that one in four children struggle with hunger every day. And kids struggling to get enough to eat are more likely to have problems in school and are often affected by other social determinants of health including lack of access to quality health care, economic instability and living in neighborhoods with fewer resources that promote health such as grocery stores, parks and recreational facilities.,, Identifying and addressing the social determinants affecting children are key components in improving health outcomes and reducing health disparities.

For many children and their families, schools serve communities as trusted resources. Teachers, administrators and school staff are often aware of a family’s struggles with social determinants of health, including food insecurity. A school pantry can provide low-income students and their families access to nutritious food.Food Pantries in Schools, California Department of Education,,School Pantry Program, Feeding America, This is especially true in South Florida where families that were already struggling were also faced with additional hardships as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.This Southern metro area has become the epicenter of the coronavirus — and food insecurity, NBC News online,

A partnership is born

In 2018, Aetna Better Health of Florida® (ABHFL) donated $125,000 to Feeding South Florida (FSF). FSF is the sole Feeding America food bank serving Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties. The one-year funding donation was part of the health plan’s strategy to address the growing trend of food insecurity in the communities they serve. A portion of the donation established a farmer’s market-style School Pantry Program (SPP) for 130 families with students at Melrose Elementary School in the Brownsville section of Miami. The twice-monthly SPP provides nutritious items such as fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as a true pantry with shelf-stable foods that are available on an as-needed basis for families with urgent requests.

It is widely known that without proper nutrition, children cannot concentrate or perform well in school. Children who have poor nutrition often experience stunted development, this can cause chronic health issues and impact the capacity for academic achievement and future success. Evidence shows the health of students is strongly associated to their academic achievement.Santos R, Huerta G, Karki M, Cantarero A. Social Determinants of Overweight and Obesity Rates by Elementary School in a Predominantly Hispanic School District. J Pediatr Nurs. 2017;37:8-12. doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2017.08.02,Jyoti DF, Frongillo EA, Jones SJ. Food insecurity affects school children’s academic performance, weight gain, and social skills. Journal of Nutrition 2005;135(12):2831–2839.,Johnson AD, Markowitz AJ. Associations Between Household Food Insecurity in Early Childhood and Children’s Kindergarten Skills. Child Dev. 2018;89(2):e1-e17. doi:10.1111/cdev.12764, Published May 2014

As such, partnering with an organization like FSF, and supporting food distribution programs in high-need communities, gives Aetna the ability to better understand the social determinants of health issues facing members in specific at-risk communities. Having this information, helps case managers provide members with the most appropriate local social services, allowing families to focus more on education instead of worrying about where they will get their next meal.

That’s why it was important from the get-go for the health plan to engage the Florida Institute for Health Innovation (FIHI). Running alongside the program, FIHI used pre- and post-survey data and focus groups to conduct an independent, qualitative and quantitative evaluation of the Melrose SPP on students’ health, behavior in school, and performance in the classroom through the collection of survey and focus group data.

Access to nutritious food: A catalyst for student success?

The post-survey data suggests that almost 20% of household groceries for respondents came from the SPP, demonstrating a significant contribution to household food security. Respondents were also asked if the SPP allowed them to “meet their food needs for the month.” Fifty-one percent (51%) answered ‘Yes’ and 74% shared that the program increased their ability to eat nutritiously. Of the parents that participated in the pre- and post-survey, there was a 12% increase in parent’s self-reporting their child’s overall health as “excellent.” This emphasized the qualitative evidence from the focus group, in which one parent shared that her children were no longer pre-diabetic after participating in the SPP.

Overall, participants in both the surveys and focus groups underscored the impact of the SPP on behavioral outcomes, reducing familial stressors associated with hunger, and improving their child’s health. When asked about the SPP in relation to students’ performance in school, participants noted that having access to food was a catalyst towards ensuring their children could focus on school without worrying about eating.

“I have five children at home, and it has been hard sometimes to tell them that there wasn’t any milk,” said one parent.
Another parent shared how their children’s behavior changes when they become concerned about access to food, stating, “They get nervous when they see the refrigerator getting empty.”

Next steps

Since the conclusion of Aetna’s one-year SPP funding contract and the FIHI study, ABHFL has maintained its collaboration with FSF through a $120,000 grant for FSF’s new Mini-Mobile Farmacy (MMF). The MMF is a mobile grocery store that goes directly to at-risk populations and provides nutritious food, interactive public health programming, and a food “farmacy” that personalizes the link between food and wellbeing for food insecure individuals with chronic health concerns.

“Aetna has brought a tremendous amount of recognition and respect to the SPP,“ said Sari M. Vatske, executive vice president of Feeding South Florida. “As a result of our collaboration, FSF’s Feeding Futures School Pantry Program was able to extend the Melrose SPP through an official partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and received an additional year of funding with the help of County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.”

About National Hunger Action Month

September is Feeding America’s Hunger Action Month, a month where people all over America stand together to support food banks and to spread the word to act on the hunger crisis and dedicate ourselves to a solution.