Minnesota Hospital Association


May 26, 2021

Combatting food insecurity during COVID-19

This story is featured in MHA's community benefit report.

Lakewood Engage is the cornerstone initiative of Lakewood Health System’s community health division and the engine that drives all its food insecurity programs. In 2020, Lakewood Health System connected more than 1,300 children, seniors, low-income individuals and patients with chronic health conditions to one of its seven programs designed to address the challenges and health consequences of hunger and food insecurity.

Since the inception of Lakewood Engage in 2013, it has evolved from simply connecting local produce growers to patients at its hospital-based Staples Area Farmers Market to constructing a comprehensive clinic-based referral program that prescribes local produce to patients through its Food Farmacy market.

Through these experiences and years of program development, Lakewood Health System has learned to be nimble and responsive to the changing environments and needs of the community. The work has strengthened its commitment to serve more patients. In 2020, Lakewood Health System invested $436,000 in community benefits to sustain its programs and even expand as the food insecurity crisis worsened due to COVID-19.

An estimated 5.1% of Lakewood Health System patients were food insecure at least one time over the last two calendar years. Since the start of 2019, Lakewood Health System has conducted nearly 50,000 food insecurity screenings throughout its hospital and clinics. In 2020, a total of 187 patients were referred to Lakewood Engage and enrolled in one of its programs. As the positivity rates of COVID-19 began to rise, so did the rate of food insecurity, particularly among patients who indicated for the very first time they did not have reliable and enough affordable, nutritious food accessible to them.

In early September 2020, Lakewood Health System launched a new clinic-based intervention called Meals at COVID-19+ to address food insecurity for those impacted by a COVID-19 diagnosis. The Meals at COVID-19+ program delivers 14 prepackaged meals to patients and each member in their household. The meals are prepared by the Hilltop Regional Kitchen in Eagle Bend, Minnesota. Each menu item is carefully crafted by a licensed dietitian and carefully portioned with a balance of proteins, carbohydrates and spices that will meet the dietary needs of each recipient.

Data revealed that of the 1,289 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 between September and December, 21% concurrently screened positive food insecurity, totaling 272 patients referred to the community health team. Among those 272 patients referred, medical records indicate 139 had been screened for food insecurity during a clinic visit within the past two years. Of those, only six previously screened positive for food insecurity while an alarming 133 did not screen positive for food insecurity at their previous screening but had since become food insecure.

Once a referral was established, a member of the community health team connected with the patient to arrange for the delivery of 14 prepackaged meals for themselves and each household member. According to Lakewood Health System data, 94% or 256 patients who simultaneously screened positive for COVID-19+ and food insecurity accepted the meals. A total of 10,738 meals were delivered to 498 adults and 269 children between September and December.

The Meals at COVID-19+ intervention has become a gateway program for patients to access other Lakewood Engage programs and seek additional health care services. Depending on age and risk factors, Lakewood Engage has a program to serve all patients experiencing chronic or episodic occurrences of food insecurity: 

  • Food Farmacy: Prescribing healthy foods to food insecure patients 
  • Acute Care Pack: Offering emergency food boxes to food insecure patients 
  • Meals at Discharge: Providing meals for up to 28 days upon hospital discharge to patients 55 years and older 
  • Meals at COVID-19+: Delivering 14 prepackaged meals to patients who concurrently test positive for COVID-19 and screen positive for food insecurity 
  • Cardinal Pax: Packaging weekend meals to low-income students enrolled in Staples-Motley ISD #2170 
  • Staples Area Farmers Market: Providing market vouchers to food insecure patients 
  • Fresh Delivered: Delivering monthly food shares to low-income seniors in multiunit housing

Through state and foundation grants and Lakewood Health System’s investment in community benefits, Lakewood Engage was able to quickly launch the Meals at COVID-19+ program and address the critical needs of its patients. Lakewood Engage plans to continue to address the influx of patients experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering prepared meals or food shares to its most vulnerable and at-risk patient population.