Healthy Food

We Have An Opportunity With Nutrition Assistance Programs

May 26, 2021
By: Merry Davis, Director, Healthy Food
The ongoing economic and health crisis posed by COVID-19 highlights longstanding inequities that must be addressed to ensure a better future for everyone in North Carolina. With that in mind the time is ripe for us all to work together to address a number of resulting and related challenges.

Key among these is food insecurity. In North Carolina, food insecurity soared from 12.9 percent of households in December 2018 to an estimated 24 percent as COVID took hold last spring, with families of color hardest hit. We also rank ninth among states in the latest Household Pulse Survey for adults who said they sometimes or often did not have enough to eat in the last seven days. This puts the health and nutrition of mothers, children, and others at risk.

One way to tackle this mounting crisis is to maximize enrollment in, and use of, federal food and nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). This work should be guided by the experiences and needs of the people who interact with food assistance programs the most - participants and those who administer them locally.

This is just what researchers at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy Center for Child & Family Policy did. Led by Carolyn Barnes, Ph.D., researchers conducted nearly 300 interviews with program participants and staff members in eight counties across North Carolina over the past several years.

They summarized their insights in a brief published this month, funded in part by our Foundation, that provides recommendations to enhance access to food nutrition programs in the state and offers a springboard for increasing program participation and enhancing them in the future.

This needed conversation comes as North Carolina is establishing - by July 1- a new Division of Child and Family Well-Being that will bring together complementary programs from the Divisions of Public Health, Mental Health, and Social Services to administer SNAP and WIC.

The benefits of both programs are federally funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered at the county level - SNAP through local departments of social services, and WIC through county health departments and health clinics. SNAP’s nutrition benefits supplement the food budget of families who are low-income so they can purchase healthy food. WIC provides nutritionally at-risk pregnant women, postpartum mothers, infants, and children up to 5-years-old who are low-income with nutritious foods, nutrition education, breast feeding support, and referrals to health care. Both programs support health and economic security and improve multiple health and even educational outcomes.

The brief points out that COVID-related changes in program administration - such as telephone appointments and extended certification periods, food flexibilities, and increased SNAP benefits - have helped reduce barriers to obtaining this important assistance. However, those who were eligible were often unaware of the changes, resulting in limited opportunities to receive the support.

The researchers also note that the programs could be greatly enhanced in North Carolina if the recommendations by those who administer and receive benefits are followed. This includes improving customer service, enhancing appointment reminders, giving greater flexibility in appointments, increasing benefits, and loosening eligibility guidelines. WIC participants also highlight the difficulty of redeeming benefits at the grocery store, underscoring the need for interventions to improve the shopping experience.

I encourage you to read the full brief to gain more on these insights, as well as the specific resulting recommendations for change.

There is an opportunity in this for us all - philanthropies, community organizations, and public leaders. Swift action to increase program participation and improve the participant experience is an important step in reducing food insecurity across our state.


About the Author

Merry Davis is the Director, Healthy Food, at the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation.
Learn more about Merry.