April 17, 2020

Food assistance outreach to ease COVID-19 financial strain

Kaiser Permanente’s Food for Life program will send text messages to almost a half million California members to offer help applying for food assistance.

The Food for Life program aims to help members apply quickly and easily to CalFresh, California’s SNAP, and will expand to include other communities Kaiser Permanente serves in the future.

Food for Life, a Kaiser Permanente program that addresses food insecurity nationwide to help people access and afford healthy food, is expanding its text message outreach to help members apply for food benefits. With many Kaiser Permanente members at risk of experiencing job loss and financial strain because of COVID-19, the program will launch its second wave of outreach and contact more than 450,000 members in California — those who are enrolled in Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, or newly eligible Medicare or Commercial members — to provide application support for those who struggle to pay for food.

“Given the steep increase in uncertainty due to COVID-19, this additional intervention may help support our members’ needs now more than ever,” said Bechara Choucair, MD, Kaiser Permanente’s chief health officer. “We are helping our members in moments that matter.”

The Food for Life program aims to help members apply quickly and easily to CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and will expand to include other communities Kaiser Permanente serves in the future. Before COVID-19, 1 in 9 households in the United States were at risk for food insecurity, the lack of consistent access to adequate food because of limited resources. That number has increased because of the economic impact of the pandemic.

Compared to other states, California has one of the lowest participation rates in SNAP, with approximately 70% of those eligible for CalFresh enrolled. Other states, including Oregon and Washington, have much higher participation with nearly every eligible individual or household enrolled.

Studies show that people who don’t have consistent access to adequate food spend about 45% more money on medical care each year than people who are food secure. People with low incomes who participate in SNAP, however, spend $1,400 less per year on medical care than people with low incomes who do not have the food benefits of SNAP. The savings is even higher for low income people with hypertension who have SNAP. They spend $2,700 less per year than those with low incomes who do not have SNAP.

This latest effort is a follow-up to the first wave of Food for Life outreach, which began in August 2019. The program first sent text messages to alert members who lived in high poverty areas that they may be eligible for CalFresh. In the first outreach, more than 15,000 of the 850,000 Kaiser Permanente members contacted completed their application for SNAP benefits and the program will continue reaching out to those who have not applied. The program helps members navigate the CalFresh application process, provides support in multiple languages, and sends text reminders if more information is needed.

One Kaiser Permanente member undergoing treatment for cancer received assistance completing the CalFresh application. Retired and on a fixed income, he often chose between buying food or buying gas to get to his chemotherapy appointments, said Pamela Schwartz, MPH, executive director of Kaiser Permanente Community Health. He applied for food benefits so he would no longer have to make such a tough choice.

“Not having consistent access to healthy, affordable food impacts health and the cost of health care,” Schwartz said. “There are people who may be eligible for CalFresh benefits who haven’t applied and there are also members who may now be eligible for the first time. When members hear from their health care provider — a trusted source — that they should consider applying for benefits, they are more likely to take that seriously.”