Efforts to expand Food for Life SNAP enrollment program were accelerated during the pandemic to help members afford healthy food.
Kaiser Permanente has reached the milestone of helping 70,000 people apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, through an innovative texting-based outreach campaign. The effort to boost SNAP enrollment across the country is part of Kaiser Permanente’s focus on addressing nonmedical, social needs as a vital component of creating and maintaining health, and one element of the organization’s Food for Life program that addresses food insecurity on a national scale.
In addition to the SNAP outreach campaign, Food for Life comprises a comprehensive set of strategies that aims to transform the economic, social, and policy environments connected to food in order to improve the social factors that impact overall health. Food for Life, like many of Kaiser Permanente's social health initiatives, includes a rigorous evaluation component to help identify the most impactful evidence-based strategies to address the social drivers of health.
Studies show that people without consistent access to adequate food spend about 45% more on medical care each year than those in food-secure households. SNAP provides monthly payments to individuals to spend on food at grocery stores, farmers markets, and other food retailers.
Encouraging eligible members to apply for SNAP benefits is not a new strategy for the health care organization, but under the Food for Life initiative, the outreach campaigns became more sophisticated and effective. In addition to mailing materials about SNAP, the outreach campaign reaches out via text message and phone, and provides guidance and assistance as people move through the application process.
“Food insecurity is an incredibly widespread challenge with solutions that people should be able to access, but there are many obstacles that prevent them from doing so,” said Pamela Schwartz, executive director for community health at Kaiser Permanente, who leads the organization's food security efforts. “The aim of Food for Life is to reduce and eventually eliminate those obstacles. The SNAP campaign is one example of how a health system can help put food on the table and money into the community.”
This effort has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the rate of food insecurity in the United States rose dramatically from pre-pandemic levels. Current estimates anticipate 42 million Americans — including 13 million children (1 out of 6) — will experience food insecurity in 2021. In a 2020 Kaiser Permanente survey of social needs, concern about access to enough food was among the 3 most prevalent issues, with 31% of respondents identifying food insecurity as a social need.
“Before the pandemic, food insecurity and poor nutrition had serious consequences for the health and well-being of children, adults, and older adults,” said Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center. “Now more than ever, clinicians will play an even bigger role in closing the growing hunger gap by connecting patients to federal nutrition programs like SNAP to help lower their risks of chronic diseases, acute infections, and developmental and mental health problems.”
To date, the Food for Life SNAP enrollment campaign has reached out to more than 1.1 million potentially food-insecure households, representing more than 2.6 million people, across the communities Kaiser Permanente serves. The campaign has seen a 28% response rate, which is significantly higher than the 3% industry standard response rate for broad food assistance outreach.
Randi Koutney, a Kaiser Permanente member in Roseville, California, was spurred by outreach from the health care organization to apply for benefits with her adult son, Michael, who has Down syndrome. As a result, Michael Koutney now does his own grocery shopping with his CalFresh debit card — giving him greater independence and his family greater purchasing power.
“This program is invaluable because it allows Michael to shop for healthy options and have his own money to do it,” Randi Koutney said.
Kaiser Permanente is also exploring outreach campaigns for its members who are eligible for WIC, the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children; is studying how to best provide medically tailored meals to people who are discharged from the hospital; and offers a Healthy Savings coupon program to help lower the cost of healthy food at major grocery stores.