Minnesota Hospital Association


May 26, 2021

Addressing food insecurity in northern Minnesota

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

With locations from Ada to Ely, International Falls to Graceville and Sandstone to Oklee, supporting the health of those in rural northern Minnesota is critical to Essentia Health’s mission.

Unfortunately, a significant health issue in this area of the state is food insecurity, with some counties reporting food insecurity rates as high as 18%, compared to the state average of 10%.

In the effort to reverse this trend, Essentia Health launched a new intervention to first identify patients and family members with food insecurity and then connect them to community resources. By incorporating screening questions related to food insecurity, access to transportation and feelings of financial strain into its electronic health wellness portal as well as during rooming processes, Essentia Health is able to identify patients needing support to combat food insecurity. A community health worker then follows up with each identified patient and refers them to a community-partner organization when appropriate.

Overall, Essentia Health sent more than 2,000 referrals to community partner organizations to help patients address their food, transportation or financial needs. The health system’s key partner, Hunger Solutions of Minnesota, received 841 referrals in 2020 to help patients apply for food benefits and find food resources in their community.

But Essentia Health’s support to alleviate food insecurity doesn’t stop there. In 2020, Essentia Health donated $299,915 toward food insecurity efforts in Minnesota, including $140,000 donated directly to local food shelves. This includes $93,000 provided to Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank in Duluth, which reaches more than 80,000 individuals. Additional food shelves such as Second Harvest North Central Food Bank in Grand Rapids, Falls Hunger Coalition, Quad City Food Shelf of Mountain Iron, Aurora Food Shelf, Ely Area Food Shelf, Hibbing Salvation Army and Salvation Army - Brainerd received funding to support feeding our neighbors.

In addition to food shelf donations, Essentia Health supported meal programs, such as providing $50,000 to Duluth’s Damiano Center’s Community Kitchen, the largest emergency meal provider in northeastern Minnesota. Because of COVID-19, the Damiano Center shifted to serving to-go meals at 19 regular mealtimes every week and provided to anyone who is hungry with no questions asked. Funds from Essentia Health helped serve 82,000 meals over the last year.

Volunteers in Becker County partnered with the faith community from three local churches in Frazee, Minnesota, where 1,450 boxes of food were distributed during a free drive-through food drop in October.

Food access programs in schools were also important means to target food insecurity. Essentia Health was able to donate $55,157 to various school programs across Essentia’s service area. Through a Healthy Schools Challenge campaign, schools were called to apply for grants of up to $2,500 to implement projects that promote the health of students. Three schools were awarded funds to implement food access-related projects, which included growing an on-site garden, a healthy food pantry and a healthy grab-and-go breakfast cart. Combined, these three projects assist more than 1,110 students.

Additionally, the Duluth Farm to School program received $33,800 of support. Through K-12 school gardens, lesson integration, classroom/cafeteria tastings and procurement, Farm to School programming focuses on helping youth to increase their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, understand where food comes from and how it is grown, and develop a love for fruits and vegetables. More than 13,000 students throughout Duluth are positively impacted by this program.

Essentia Health also supported several other healthy food programs, including a community garden program in Duluth and farmers markets across its service area in Moorhead, Grand Rapids and Duluth. A volunteer fundraising effort was completed in Becker County to supply child care providers with meals and cleaning supplies. Additionally, $20,000 was granted to Hunger Solutions’ SNAP Outreach Program, which connects people with food resources through the Minnesota Food HelpLine, Market Bucks and SNAP Rx Programs.