A Funder-Backed Push to Bring Everyone to the Table in the Fight Against Hunger

 photo:  Jonathan Weiss/shutterstock

photo:  Jonathan Weiss/shutterstock

One of the conundrums of hunger in America is that there's so much healthy food around, and at least some government and private programs, as well as food banks and the like. Yet far too many kids and adults still wake up hungry and go to bed hungry.

Even a relatively low-population state like Colorado (5.5 million people) has a difficult time reaching the people who need help. So recently, a collection of Colorado leaders and organizations, including nonprofits, healthcare providers, state and county groups, schools and individuals announced a broad effort to end hunger in the state.

Bankrolled by the Colorado Health Foundation, the new Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger is a five-year plan that seeks to make full use of existing nutrition and food programs and organizations by coordinating disparate resources in the state. So a big part of the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger depends not on inventing a new food supply solution, but simply enrolling people in existing government programs for which they're already eligible.

Foundations have often worked to ensure that people are taking advantage of existing government programs. Most recently, health funders (including the Colorado Health Foundation) invested heavily in educating Americans about the benefits available under the Affordable Care Act. Other foundation-backed efforts over the years have focused on expanding participation in CHIP and the EITC. This can be a high-leverage strategy because it doesn't require winning tough policy fights to create new benefits, which can take years. The programs already exist; people just need to know how to use them. 

Elements of the Blueprint to End Hunger include enrollment of income-eligible Coloradans in both the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Woman, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Service (WIC). It also seeks to boost participation in federal child nutrition programs and to increase the number of Coloradans who can access the food through community-based organizations.

According to the blueprint announcement, one in six Colorado kids are hungry, and one in 10 Colorado seniors lacks access to enough healthy, affordable food. About one in 10 Coloradans struggle to find enough money to buy food. The statistics may vary somewhat from state to state, but hunger is a problem across the country.

In fact, there's plenty of food in Colorado, as in most of America. But, as in the rest of the country, food in Colorado doesn't reach all families and neighborhoods equally. For some, the problem is poverty: Residents don't have the money to buy food. Others live in food deserts and are prone to overconsumption of fast food, frozen foods, and other processed fare that don't provide adequate nutrition.

It's not surprising to see the Colorado Health Foundation—which got a new leader in 2015: Karen McNeil-Miller—at the center of this effort. The foundation is very attuned to public policy, as we've reported in the past. It's also placed a big focus on coordination and collaboration to solve health problems in the state. More than 35 organizations and individuals developed the blueprint with input from more than 100 additional organizations.

Hunger is indeed a complex problem, so every state will likely benefit from any lessons learned in Colorado after the blueprint has been in operation for a couple of years. It's likely that similar strategies will apply in other states, all of which have patchworks of public and private nutrition resources, and some of the same gaps in coordination between agencies and in services for residents.