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Attacking food insecurity in Hartford, Connecticut

January 19, 2022 | Community

A masked and gloved volunteer carries a wooden box filled with produce.

Katie Martin has devoted her career to collecting and distributing healthy food with dignity to her local Hartford, Connecticut community members. Food insecurity, or the inability to consistently access food because of lack of money or other resources, is particularly rampant within Hartford’s 06106 ZIP code, where almost 60% of the community lives at or below the poverty line.

Simply having enough food is part of a much greater, complicated set of challenges that surround and perpetuate hunger, explained Katie, executive director of the Institute for Hunger Research & Solutions at Connecticut Foodshare, a nonprofit that collects and distributes food to pantries across Connecticut and creates programs that address hunger.

This understanding, built from years serving pantries and families, led Katie and her team to develop programs designed to target the key problems among local households: limited access and ability to identify healthy, nutritious foods and broader struggles with economic mobility and stability, of which hunger is a key challenge.

A grant from CVS Health will fund an expansion of these programs, called Supporting Wellness at Pantries and More Than Food, supporting the addition of three new food pantries in the 06106 ZIP code. This funding is part of Health Zones, a new community investment program where CVS Health is partnering with local nonprofits to coordinate new and expanded offerings that address their community’s most pressing health challenges and build health equity.

Addressing food insecurity with nutritious foods

Supporting Wellness at Pantries (SWAP) is a system to help food pantries improve their supply of healthy (green and yellow) foods, limit their volume of unhealthy (red) foods and offer their members, including those who don’t speak English, easy visuals to help them choose healthy foods during their visits to pantries. The program leverages the common “red, yellow, green” signals that everyone is accustomed to.

“Our clients want healthy, nutritious foods, but these are often hard to come by in the community because of cost or lack of grocery store options,” said Katie. “And food pantries want to build their inventories of healthy foods that they receive and request from donors, but many people have different ideas and definitions of what constitutes a healthy food,” she said.

Nutritious food takes on an even higher level of importance for those who are food insecure, she said. People who rely on Hartford’s food pantries are often managing chronic diseases, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases or diabetes, for themselves or a family member. This creates a secondary burden of finding food that won’t worsen health conditions.

Tomato sauce provides one example of a food item that many people think of as healthy, but that often contains hidden sugar, Katie noted. SWAP removes any mystery behind which foods are and aren’t healthy by highlighting the saturated fat, sodium and added sugar content into labeling foods as “green,” “yellow” or “red.” Food pantries can use the SWAP system to help educate both members and food donors about the nutritional quality of the food available at pantries.

More Than Food

Food insecurity is often part of a long list of economic stresses on community members, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has created heavy job losses in the region. Most pantry guests want to build better lives for themselves and their families but often struggle to break away from family legacies of poverty and don’t know where to begin, Katie said.

This insight led her to create More Than Food, a program rooted in the belief that it takes more than food to end hunger. A key aspect of the program is pairing food pantry members with a coach to help them to chart and accomplish small and large life goals. These goals might include finding better housing, improving their job training or building a steady job or career. The food pantry acts as a gateway to connect people with local resources that will give them tools to lift themselves up the economic ladder, prevent future hunger and overcome the obstacles holding them back.

Providing guests with a dignified, comfortable experience is also part of the program. More Than Food provides pantries with guidance on how to replace the traditional pantry/member transaction of being handed a bag of food with an environment where members can shop for food in a setting that feels like a grocery store. “For many pantry guests, this is the first time someone is asking them about their needs and goals,” Katie said. “It’s empowering to feel seen and heard in that way.” Coaches build personalized programs to help people reach their goals and then hold people accountable for smaller steps along the way to reach them. “People feel a huge sense of accomplishment reaching their goals and knowing that someone is in their corner.”