Cheerful Black Little Girls Smiles While In Line In A Soup Kitchen. She Is Holding A Plate Full Of Healthy Food. Her Family Is In Line Behind Her.

A Conversation: Exploring Policy Opportunities in Nutrition Security and School Health

By Pamela Schwartz and Annie Reed, interviewed by Renee Gross
Renee Gross, JD
Renee Gross, JD
Health Policy Consultant
Pam Schwartz, MPH
Pam Schwartz, MPH
Executive Director, Community Health, Kaiser Permanente
Annie Reed, DrPH
Annie Reed, DrPH
Executive Director, Thriving Schools, Kaiser Permanente

Since 2020, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated hardships caused by food insecurity – lack of access to sufficient and nutritious food – across the country. Over 29 million adults and 12 million children struggled to afford food in 2021. This issue disproportionately impacts people of color with roughly 8.7 million Black and Latinx children living in food insecure households. And we know that federal food assistance programs are critical to supporting families and children by providing billions of dollars in aid to help address hunger and foster improved nutrition.

Given the need for long-term solutions, now is an opportune time to focus our attention on programs and policies that help improve nutrition and address hunger across the country. These conversations are beginning to happen at the federal level with the upcoming White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health (White House Conference), planned for September 2022. This event will elevate a broad range of food and nutrition policies and provide the health care sector an opportunity to highlight the continued development of evidence-based interventions to support patients and families with food and nutrition security. The goal of these interventions is to improve health outcomes and lower costs of care.   

Additionally, Congress is now considering updates to the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, renewing and updating family nutrition and school meal programs through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) process.  

At Kaiser Permanente, we know the value of these programs and policies because we see the positive impact they have on people’s health. I recently sat down with Kaiser Permanente leaders Pamela Schwartz, executive director of Community Health, and Annie Reed, executive director of Thriving Schools and Communities, to share more about Kaiser Permanente’s work with communities to address hunger and nutrition.  

Renee: The child and family nutrition programs included in Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) reach many people in the communities Kaiser Permanente serves. How does our Thriving Schools work build on the impact of these programs?  

Annie: Schools are in a prime position to help students and staff be their physical, mental, and emotional best. Kaiser Permanente Thriving Schools has supported healthy food environments in schools for nearly 10 years through what started as our Healthy Eating, Active Living initiative and has since been incorporated into our broader Thriving Schools Integrated Approach that considers the many dimensions of health that affect teaching and learning. Schools play an important role in shaping healthy eating habits by offering nutrient-rich meals, snacks, and beverages to their students and staff. And healthy schools result in students with better focus and attention, improved academic achievement and attendance, and better overall health for students, teachers, and staff.  

Renee: Why do these programs and policies matter to health care organizations like Kaiser Permanente?  

Pam: We know that food and nutrition insecurity is directly correlated with poor health, including higher rates of chronic disease, such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease – among others. At Kaiser Permanente, we are actively testing a variety of interventions— programs and pilot studies – to improve patient and community health. One recent intervention we launched with great success is using text messaging to help our eligible members enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Our integrated model allows us to leverage our size, scale, data, and research capabilities to really understand the impact of these interventions on health and cost of care. We also work closely with our members to design and revise our interventions to make sure we are addressing both individual and community level barriers to accessing nutritious food.   

Annie: Schools have continued to take on new responsibilities these past few years. We know that they are stretched thin in terms of resources and energy. Healthy school meals and beverages can support schools during challenging times by meeting the nutritional needs of students so that they can focus in the classroom and excel academically. As a health care provider, we are a valuable partner in ensuring that teachers, staff, and students have the resources they need to live a healthful life. One-fifth of our members are students or school employees, so we have an opportunity to reach them where they spend a lot of time. One example of how we do this is by meeting them where they are in their school health needs through the Thriving Schools Integrated Assessment – an online tool that provides resources, practices, and policies on a comprehensive set of health topics including Improving Nutrition and Food Access.  

Renee: What is one thing you hope policymakers think about as they build out the White House Conference agenda and start the renewal of CNR programs?  

Annie: The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the intersection of health and education, with the importance of school meals being among the most visible and urgent social needs addressed by schools. Millions of children, especially children from families with low-incomes, benefit from nutritious food provided by these programs. It has a real impact on their daily lives and future success, along with supporting a positive learning environment. Kaiser Permanente supported the development of the Ten-Year Roadmap for Healthy Schools to encourage action and motivate leaders towards a coordinated and bold agenda for achieving healthy schools. The National Healthy Schools Collaborative’s work on the roadmap reflects on the deep connection between these programs and improvements in educational achievement, economic security, nutrition, and health. 

Pam: Kaiser Permanente continues to build the evidence base and business case for interventions that address nutrition insecurity and improve patient health. As it relates to the White House Conference, there is an opportunity for the federal government to support new research and pilots on promising food interventions that will help policymakers and health systems better understand what works and under what conditions so that we can have the greatest impact on health and cost.  

Renee: Thank you for sharing your perspectives. You’ve highlighted several promising interventions that policymakers can contemplate as they prepare for September’s White House Conference and CNR renewal process.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s public policy perspectives on food and nutrition security and about our Thriving Schools initiative