Neighborhood Health, Meals on Wheels mark milestone in food delivery program

FROM LEFT, Mark Cooper, vice president of Medicare-Medicaid integration for Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island; Meghan Grady, executive director of Meals on Wheels of RI Inc.; and Lisa Duchesne, a product director at Neighborhood, celebrate the 1000th delivery of food bags under a pilot program that's been running for a year. / COURTESY MEALS ON WHEELS OF RI INC.

SMITHFIELD – Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island and health insurer Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island recently celebrated the 1,000th delivery of shelf-stable food bags under a pilot food program that benefits members of Neighborhood Health’s Integrity Medicaid-Medicare Plan.

The Neighborhood-Meals on Wheels Shelf-Stable Food Bag Program launched in July 2022 and will conclude its extended pilot phase on July 31. The program has aimed to improve the health and well-being of the 167 Neighborhood INTEGRITY members participating in the program. The majority of the participants live in Providence County.

Through the program, INTEGRITY members, some of whom are clients of Meals on Wheels, have received a monthly home delivery of shelf-stable food bags containing good sources of the nutrients typically lacking in their diets. The bags also contain nutrition education, recipes and information about Neighborhood’s member benefits.

“The program has helped me a lot, and I have a lot of gratitude for it,” said Maria Montanez, Neighborhood INTEGRITY member and Providence resident. “I like everything about the food bag because of the nutrients and because the contents are low in sodium. I watch the salt in my food, and it gives me more ease to eat meals knowing they are low in salt.”

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Montanez, 67, lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a host of other health challenges.

Mark Cooper, vice president of Medicare-Medicaid integration for Neighborhood Health, said the pilot program provided an opportunity to visit some of our members to get anecdotal data on the program.

“Direct conversation with members is invaluable in determining the true impact of a program on a member’s health,” Cooper said. “And, since our INTEGRITY members are among the most medically fragile and underserved individuals in the state – with many screening as food insecure – we have been hopeful about the pilot and the assistance it could provide.”

Through the visits, Cooper and INTEGRITY Product Director Lisa Duchesne learned that Neighborhood’s INTEGRITY members have come to rely on the “culturally appropriate” shelf-stable food and enjoy making meals from the bags’ contents. Duchesne said, “One of our members … made us a fruit and bean salad – she was so happy to share it with us.”

Launched as a six-month pilot program in July 2022, Neighborhood Health extended the program earlier this year. The extension was in response to reductions in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program allotments that were tied to the end of the federal government’s COVID-19 emergency benefits.

“Extending the food bag program was the right thing to do,” Cooper said. “These members didn’t need one more thing to worry about when the public health emergency ended. Plus, this program not only addresses food insecurity, but social isolation and loneliness, which can also greatly impact a senior’s health.”

“I find the program to be very helpful because the food is very healthy for me,” said Maria Aguiar, Neighborhood INTEGRITY member and Pawtucket resident. “I love the rice, beans and cereal I receive.”

Aguiar, 92, is a diabetic and lives with chronic pain, hypertension and other health challenges.

Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island Executive Director Meghan Grady said, “Neighborhood has, for many years, been a great partner in our organization’s work and we are thrilled to continue to collaborate on innovative ways to improve food access for their members. The shelf-stable food bags delivered under the expansion of our ‘More Than a Meal’ model are one way our organization is addressing food is medicine and increasing our statewide impact in helping older adults to maintain independent living.”

The meal bags include a variety of foods such as milk, juice, oats, cereal, rice, pasta, peanut butter, canned beans, canned meat—poultry or fish, and canned fruits and vegetables. The contents of the bags vary for each delivery. The food bags are delivered mid-month to augment when members’ SNAP food benefits begin to run out. Neighborhood team members assist monthly with bag packing as a volunteer opportunity.

When the pilot ends, Neighborhood Health will analyze its impact and consider the next steps. Evaluation criteria will include improvements in self-reported food insecurity, levels of access to food, health status and reduced overall financial strain. Neighborhood’s hope is that the pilot proves to be successful in addressing the challenges that are often the most significant barriers to food access – economic stability, access to transportation and availability of healthy foods.

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