This post is part of our community blog series that highlights best practices and solutions from our network partners. This post is contributed by Unite Us team member Taylor Miller of Norfolk, VA.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the pervasive issue of food insecurity in communities across the country. While food assistance providers and advocates were aware of this crisis well before the pandemic, many individuals were shocked at images in the news of long lines at food distribution centers and even ourmilitary families struggling to put food on their tables.
At Unite Us, we are intimately familiar with the issue of food insecurity. We actively recruit team members who have experience working for food banks, food pantries, and similar organizations that work to nourish their neighbors. We empathize with the added stress the pandemic put on such organizations, as they were forced to shift service delivery models while also watching the need increase within communities. From March 2020 to May 2021, Unite Us witnessed the total number of unique service episodes related to food grow by 928%. For reference, benefits navigation, a similarly sought-after resource, only grew by 310% since March 2020. Food assistance has remained one of the most requested service types across our networks.
Even with all the change and unpredictability brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing has remained constant: individuals and families are increasingly in need of food assistance. Often, one or multiple events have led them to that need, such as being laid off from their job, or being forced to decrease working hours to care for a child when schools closed. Families have been forced to make tough choices. Organizations providing food assistance across our networks have been at the tip of the spear, frequently making the difference in whether a family can make ends meet that month.
Unite Us’ aim is to address the root causes that can lead to an individual or family needing access to food assistance, and to help connect those in need to additional resources.
Connecting Individuals to Food Assistance
Since the first Unite Us network was established, food assistance providers have played an important role as network partners. Some organizations, such as the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginiaand the Eastern Shore, receive electronic referrals to assist individuals with applications for federal nutrition assistance programs. Others, like All Faiths Food Bank in Florida, use the platform to receive HIPAA-compliant referrals from healthcare partners that identify food insecurity through pediatric screenings.
Glenn Wise, programs director at MANNA FoodBank in Western North Carolina, explained how working with Unite Us transformed the way his staff accepted referrals from healthcare providers. Unite Us, Wise explained, enabled his team, once bogged down by a time-intensive and complex system, to “save so many steps in the process.”
“Before Unite Us, we were entering information for each client into an Excel spreadsheet, but now that loop is completed within the platform,” he said.
COVID-19 restrictions meant many organizations had to shift their distribution models. Requests for home-delivered food assistance increased, especially in those instances where an individual was either homebound or self-isolating due to underlying health conditions, a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, or a potential exposure. Throughout the pandemic, our Unite Us team members worked alongside many of these organizations to update their program offerings.
Referring Out for Root Causes
Many individuals and families who had never accessed support in the past found themselves contacting local food assistance providers during the pandemic. For most people, food banks and food pantries are the initial point of contact in reaching out for help, which provides a tremendous opportunity for these organizations to assist them in making connections to other community resources that target the root causes of their food insecurity.
In communities across the country, food assistance providers are utilizing the Unite Us Platform to send electronic referrals on behalf of individuals to other organizations in the community, such as those providing housing assistance, employment, or legal services. For example, the organization Feeding Tampa Bay has been serving as a coordination center within its community to help accurately route referrals to other providers. Referral Data tracked through the Unite Us Platform can also be used to identify coverage gaps and prompt connections between organizations in the community that may benefit from a strategic partnership.
We recognize that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will linger long after the virus is no longer a threat. Resources such as food assistance will remain in great demand. The team at Unite Us is working hard to innovate new ways to help the organizations on the front lines providing services to those in need. With the only end-to-end social care solution — from predicting needs within a community, to enrollment and service delivery, to sustainable community investment — we are excited to collaborate on what provides value to your organization, those you serve, and your community. As social workers, public health professionals, and “foodbankers” at heart, we are passionate about the role we play and are honored to be partners with you in this work.