Community Benefit: Food for the Hungry During the Pandemic

The last time BayCare surveyed residents in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties for our community health needs assessment, three top needs emerged: mental health and substance use, access to health care services, and exercise, nutrition and weight. A specific result surprised health care providers: Thirty percent of the community respondents who answered questions about food insecurity indicated they had been food insecure in the past year, meaning they always or sometimes ran out of food before they had money to buy more.

“That was alarming,” Lisa Bell, BayCare’s Community Benefit manager, said of the 2019 findings. Fast forward a year later, to the arrival of the coronavirus in 2020, and the alarm only grew. Throughout West Central Florida, organizations that feed the hungry reported a doubling or tripling of the number of residents needing food assistance, as lockdowns, layoffs and furloughs steadily eroded the resources of people at all income levels.

BayCare wanted to know more about how residents were faring during the pandemic, so our Community Benefit team resurveyed some of the respondents from the initial study. “We saw some very different answers from the first round,” Bell said. “More of the responses were directly related to the social determinants of health, meaning poverty, housing and employment. And people were hungrier.”

BayCare knows good nutrition is good medicine, and with a mission to “improve the health of all we serve,” BayCare leaders realized the pandemic was the right time to accelerate work we were already planning in order to support access to food. Care coordination teams in BayCare hospitals began asking qualifying patients who were about to be discharged if they would have access to healthy food at home. Now, those patients who indicate they might have trouble getting enough to eat are discharged with a two- to three-day supply of nonperishable food. Inside each food bag is information about food pantries and organizations located near the patient’s home that will help the hungry. “We’re creating a bridge” to community resources, Bell said.

BayCare also committed $400,000 to locate food pantries in 16 schools in Tampa Bay communities where hunger is a problem. BayCare will stock the pantries with refrigerators and freezers to store food that will be provided by Feeding Tampa Bay, a local nonprofit that gives food to more than one million families in West Central Florida. BayCare’s $400,000 will support Feeding Tampa Bay’s expenses for operating the pantries.

BayCare also welcomed the opportunity to participate along with other hospitals and clinics in a Feeding Tampa Bay program called FoodRx. BayCare’s first venture is underway at our HealthHub in Valrico. Food-insecure patients who have been diagnosed with obesity, hypertension, diabetes and prediabetes receive vouchers to shop for 12 weeks at Feeding Tampa Bay’s mobile grocery store. The bus, stocked with healthy foods, arrives once a week at the HealthHub so participants can shop. Then, during the 2020 holiday season, BayCare team members chipped in individually, participating in a virtual food drive for Feeding Tampa Bay, raising more than $25,000.

BayCare’s new investments in food access are just one more way of serving our community. Since our founding in 1997, BayCare has treated the sick without regard for their ability to pay for their care. Every year, BayCare provides millions of dollars in “community benefit,” a term that describes the services a health care system provides to individuals and communities without being paid. BayCare’s Community Benefit services include charity care, community health screenings, education of health care professionals, sponsorships and now, food assistance.

BayCare exists to serve the people of Tampa Bay and West Central Florida and help them live healthier, happier lives.