STATE: New plan aims to meet food, nutrition needs of North Carolina children, families

From the NCDHHS:

RALEIGH — About 1.2 million North Carolinians, or nearly 11% of the state’s population, don’t know where their next meal is coming from. To ensure North Carolina children, families and older adults have enough food and good nutrition, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Friday released the NCDHHS State Action Plan for Nutrition Security. This plan is part of the department’s larger strategic goal to support child and family well-being.

Multiple programs currently exist to meet this goal, including Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Medicaid. The action plan leverages those programs to cohesively support whole-person health, brings together efforts by various divisions across NCDHHS and builds upon significant initiatives already implemented by NCDHHS during the pandemic. Programs include the successful Pandemic-EBT program, which has issued more than $2.3 billion in benefits to more than 1.6 million students across North Carolina.

The action plan outlines an innovative, multi-pronged strategy to decrease the number of North Carolinians currently experiencing food insecurity. Actions include:

  • increasing the reach of NCDHHS’ nutrition programs;
  • building connections between health care and nutrition supports; and
  • increasing breastfeeding support and rates.

“We often take for granted the healthy and nutritious food we keep in our refrigerators and pantries — but many families struggle to put food on the table every day,” said NCDHHS Chief Deputy Secretary for Opportunity and Well-Being Susan Gale Perry. “Our goal with this plan is to ensure everyone can get the food and nutrition they need to thrive, and fewer North Carolinians experience hunger.”

NCDHHS’ vision is for North Carolina children to be healthy and thrive in safe, stable and nurturing families, schools and communities. NCDHHS recognizes that access to nutritious food is foundational for overall health and well-being. Over 18 months from 2023-2024, the plan will guide implementation of initiatives that will increase enrollment in FNS, WIC and Medicaid; improve the beneficiary and caseworker experience in the FNS and WIC programs; leverage North Carolina’s robust network of community partners who connect residents to services; and stand up a statewide breastfeeding hotline. These activities are grounded in metrics and milestones designed to decrease hunger and food insecurity in North Carolina’s children and adults.

With the federal COVID-19 Public Health Emergency ending May 11, many federal policies that expanded eligibility and benefits during the pandemic for nutrition programs will end. NCDHHS is acting to ensure eligible families can enroll and remain enrolled in programs that support nutrition and overall well-being. Initiatives already underway include a pilot initiative to send text messages to help eligible families enroll in WIC. Guided by the action plan, NCDHHS is moving with urgency to address nutrition security for all North Carolinians at this critical time.

To create the action plan, NCDHHS worked closely with Benefits Data Trust (BDT), a national nonprofit that improves health and financial security by harnessing the power of data, technology and policy to provide eligible families and individuals with efficient access to assistance.

“NCDHHS is doing very meaningful work to improve the ways North Carolina families learn about, apply to and access benefit programs, and we are honored to support this process and build on our longstanding partnership,” said Trooper Sanders, CEO of Benefits Data Trust. “We applaud NCDHHS’ commitment to comprehensive improvement of benefits access and look forward to continuing to help North Carolinians connect to the programs they need in a way that is dignified and proactive.”

Since 2017, BDT has operated the North Carolina Benefits Center in partnership with NCDHHS to help eligible North Carolinians connect to FNS benefits.