Mountaineer Food Bank

Mountaineer Food Bank (MFB) has long worked to ensure all West Virginians have access to enough food for an active, healthy life. Now, through a partnership with Community Care of West Virginia, the food bank is addressing food insecurity while also working to improve chronic health conditions for residents in Upshur County.

MFB began partnering with Community Care on the Upshur County Food for Health program in 2022. The program provides medically indicated food boxes to people who have limited access to healthy foods and have been diagnosed with a chronic health condition like diabetes or high blood pressure. Food for Health was supported by a Healthy Communities Initiative grant from the Pallottine Foundation of Buckhannon with additional funding and in-kind contributions from MFB and Community Care.

“The Food for Health Program embodies a holistic approach to combatting food insecurity by integrating nutrition support within healthcare systems,” said Gabriela Schoolcraft, Communications Officer for Mountaineer Food Bank. “Through partnerships with health clinics, we extend a helping hand to those facing the dual challenge of food insecurity and chronic illness. By providing tailored produce boxes and nutritious shelf-stable essentials, we not only nourish bodies but also cultivate a healthier future.”

The Upshur County Food for Health program was implemented over nine months starting in February 2023. The program served 30 patients from Community Care’s Rock Cave and Buckhannon primary care clinics, and the Connections recovery center in Buckhannon. Participants received two food distributions each month. The first consisted of fresh produce and diet-specific, shelf-stable foods. The second included protein and more fresh produce. Monthly distributions equaled approximately 16 meals for each participant. The food bank prepares the food boxes and delivers them to a Community Care location where they are stored until patient distribution is arranged.

Community Care also provided patients with educational information, recipes, and other support services needed to improve their health.

MFB’s Food for Health program is an innovative model that uses a variety of delivery methods to get healthy foods to participants. While some patients pick up food boxes themselves at Community Care, most receive deliveries at home during regular visits from community health workers or staff members. These visits provide an opportunity for discussion and education regarding the link between good nutrition and health, and they eliminate transportation barriers in accessing healthy foods.

“The two main reasons patients listed for food insecurity were cost of food and transportation,” said Cara Holmes, Program Coordinator for Mountaineer Food Bank. “This program helps to supplement food for the month so they can use that money elsewhere – for bills, medication, or transportation. Community Care is also delivering the boxes to patients, which is incredibly helpful to those with transportation issues who are also food insecure.”

To track patient progress and program efficacy, Community Care conducted periodic lab testing specific to each patient’s chronic illness, as well as pre-program, interim, and post-program patient surveys. Testing measures included hemoglobin A1C, blood pressure, waist size, weight, and lipid levels. The program’s first year was a great success and showed improved health outcomes with nearly half of participants reporting “good” or “great” health. In addition, the number of participants who regularly worried about running out of food decreased from six to only three. And there are even more positive results.

“From the start of the program in February 2023, 15 out of 30 patients have a lower A1C,” Holmes said. “When the last set of metrics were taken in November, there was an 85-point decrease in cholesterol overall and a total of 226 pounds lost between 16 patients! That is an incredible number.”

This success led MFB to apply for a second Healthy Communities grant from the Pallottine Foundation of Buckhannon to continue the Food for Health program. In late 2023, the Foundation awarded the food bank $25,000 to continue providing the same 30 Community Care patients with nutritious food boxes for another seven months. Community Care will conduct the same health testing and patient surveys at regular intervals throughout the program and provide nutrition education as was done in the pilot project.

“We believe this program has yielded promising results so far,” said Laura Boone, Executive Director of the Pallottine Foundation of Buckhannon. “We are enthusiastic about the potential for participants to achieve further health improvements over an additional seven months.”

Diane Hannah, Director of Quality Improvement for Community Care and Site Coordinator for the Food for Health program, noted that program feedback has been very positive, with patients saying they like the fresh produce and variety of protein provided.

“The Pallottine food project has been a success, with very few patients dropping out, and they were very excited when the program was extended,” Hannah said. “Having more fresh fruits and vegetables in their diets and trying new things has been a welcomed change from eating boxed and processed foods.”

Across the nation, medically indicated food box programs like Food for Health are trying to
build an evidence base by demonstrating that providing patients with low-barrier access to
healthy foods, along with guidance and support from clinical providers, is an impactful way to improve health outcomes. Ultimately, this movement aims to show long-term cost savings that will encourage health insurance payors and government funders to incorporate support for these programs into their routine program benefits.

During the initial Food for Health pilot, progress was made toward this goal when The Health Plan, a Medicaid-managed care organization, agreed to support the program at two additional Community Care locations.

“Through the success of medically indicated food box programs, we hope to demonstrate that a little investment can go a long way in improving health,” Boone said. “By providing nutritious foods and eliminating barriers to access, we can help prevent future health issues and enable patients to better manage chronic conditions.

“Extending the Food for Health program will enable Mountaineer Food Bank and Community Care to continue building on the program’s already impressive data set relating to patient outcomes,” Boone continued. “The team can then use that data to engage in further outreach efforts that may help transition support for the program from private funding to government and health system payment. That would sustain the program long-term and help ensure that patients with chronic diseases have access to healthy food.”

About Mountaineer Food Bank
Mountaineer Food Bank is the largest emergency food provider in West Virginia, distributing over 17 million meals each year to residents who face food insecurity. Through a network of community partners, the food bank distributes essential items to those in need and provides additional programs and services for veterans, children, and seniors. To learn more, visit www.mountaineerfoodbank.org.

About Community Care of West Virginia
Community Care of West Virginia is a Federally Qualified Health Center with 18 community health center locations, 50 school-based health sites, eight pharmacies, and one dental office. Its mission is to help communities live the healthiest lives possible by meeting their immediate and long-term healthcare needs. To learn more, visit www.communitycarewv.org.