Well-being & Lifestyle Benefits
| Sep 22 2022

Confronting Food Insecurity in the Workforce

Whitney Sayre
Solution Architect, Mercer's Center for Health Innovation

Food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Households are typically categorized into one of four levels of food security: high food security, marginal food security, low food security, or very low food security. These descriptors indicate the extent to which a household has difficulty or anxiety about accessing adequate quantities of quality food, which can be influenced by several factors. This enormous public health issue is largely affected by unemployment, poverty, income shocks, and a number of additional overlapping social determinants of health.

It is important to understand that food insecurity is not isolated among a specific group of people or region of the country, but rather exists in every county in the US. Some 42 million Americans were projected to face food insecurity in 2021. That equates to 1 in 8 adults or 1 in 6 children, and prevalence is even greater among racial and ethnic minority groups due to disparities in socioeconomic and other underlying factors that contribute to food insecurity. For example, the average rate of food insecurity in the US is 10.5% according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), but that rate is 22.5% among Black populations and 18.5% among Hispanic populations.

The cost of food continues to climb: groceries are 12.2% higher now than they were last summer, forcing many to purchase lower quality ingredients or potentially cutting back on food consumption entirely. As consumers continue to grapple with this economic uncertainty, we may see a rise in food insecurity levels. While employers cannot solve the problem on their own, they can play a role in driving meaningful change. People experiencing food insecurity are susceptible to worse health outcomes and are at a higher risk for certain conditions, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, and depression. Employers that leverage tools and resources to ensure employees and their families have consistent access to healthy foods can have a significant impact on health outcomes and costs related to health and workforce productivity.

Consider some of these steps to address food insecurity among your employee population:

  • Assess the prevalence or likelihood of food insecurity. Leverage data and analytical tools to understand which employees may be experiencing or who may be at a higher risk for food insecurity based on demographic, economic, geographic, and other relevant factors. Some communities are considered food deserts – areas where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods – or food swamps – areas with a high concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores. Both often have higher rates of food insecure households, and studies also suggest that quality foods can be costlier in food deserts, making access even more challenging for already disadvantaged groups.

  • Explore opportunities to partner with or direct employees to other organizations that address nutrition and healthy food access. Community-based organizations dedicated to addressing food access and insecurity can be a valuable resource, and it’s worth exploring ways to partner on educational initiatives or programs to influence healthy eating habits. Discuss opportunities to better support nutrition needs among your employees with your existing partners, too. Healthcare payers are stepping up to better support communities’ and members’ nutritional needs through partnerships with nutrition providers and redesigned benefit offerings.

  • Implement benefit programs that directly support food and nutrition needs. Relevant solutions can range from purely financial benefits (e.g. stipends for groceries, meal delivery services, or community-sustained agriculture programs) to navigation services (e.g., Castlight), health literacy and food education (e.g., Lemond Nutrition), and comprehensive dietary platforms and solutions (e.g., Season, Foodsmart). Consider what approach may be most valuable to your employees and explore implementing a solution that helps ensure a food secure workforce.

The signs of food insecurity are not always immediately obvious, so it can be a challenging problem for employers to address. Using data analytics to identify and address social determinants of health can help employers target solutions to support a food-secure population. But regardless of the prevalence of food insecurity in a given workforce, the enormous health benefits associated with healthy diets and eating habits suggests nutrition-focused benefits are a worthwhile investment for all employers.

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