Food Banks Link Diabetics to Healthy Food and Medical Care

Bea Hanson, food bank CEO with a diabetes management box.
November 5, 2015
by Patricia Mae Doykos, PhD


In 2010, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation launched a national philanthropic initiative called Together on Diabetes™ with the goal to improve health outcomes of people living with type 2 diabetes, and particularly those who have been most heavily affected by the disease such as the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor.  In this initiative, the Foundation has provided $53 million in grants to support partners working in over 70 communities in 28 states and the District of Columbia to develop and test innovative ways of expanding access to diabetes self-management education in community settings and healthy foods and active living resources so that patients can more easily take what they learn about managing their diabetes and put it into action.

Recognizing the scale and acceleration of the epidemic -- as the CDC projects that 1 in 3 adult Americans will be living with diabetes by 2050 -- and the inadequacy of traditional public health and medical interventions to curb that trajectory, the Foundation has also sought to bring new tools into the response by engaging non-traditional partners.  These “unusual suspects” are organizations whose services, reach and know-how could have a significant impact on diabetes prevention and management, but who had not yet had the opportunity to explore and define their role. Feeding America exemplifies just such a non-traditional partner. Moreover, its bidirectional food bank-health center partnership pilot study, which appears in Health Affairs this month, demonstrates how its assets can be mobilized effectively in the diabetes response and improve the effectiveness of the efforts of traditional healthcare partners.

With its national network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs, Feeding America is expert at sourcing and providing healthy food and nutritional education to more than 46 million people each year. Its member food banks are stable and trusted sources of support for the vulnerable people they reach and serve, and can be gateways to accessing other needed services such as diabetes screenings, diabetes self-management education and linkage to health insurance and a community-based healthcare provider. At the same time, Feeding America’s expertise in food insecurity is a resource to healthcare providers who have learned to use a simple two-question food security screening tool with their diabetic patients and then make needed referrals to their new food bank partners for healthy foods as well as diabetes education.   

It has been a great privilege for the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation to support Feeding America’s three-year pilot study. The publication of the model and results in Health Affairs points to the operational feasibility and efficacy of food bank-health center partnerships to provide an integrated continuum of diabetes care and support irrespective of which door the client enters. Today, Feeding America is poised to replicate the model across its national network. We will continue to work with Feeding America to pursue additional funding, reimbursement and enabling policies to make broader access and sustainability possible and invite public and private sector partners to learn about this innovative strategy to curb the diabetes epidemic in the U.S. and bring your resources and partnership to this table.

Patricia Mae Doykos

*Patricia Mae Doykos, Ph.D. is a director at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.  She has led the Together on Diabetes™ initiative to address diabetes health inequities in the United States since its launch in 2010.