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According to Feeding America, food insecurity is a household’s inability to provide enough food for active, healthy lifestyles. Food insecurity is a way to assess the risk of hunger and in the U.S., one in eight people struggle with hunger.

But the YMCA of Western North Carolina is working to battle food insecurity through its nutrition department. Lauren Furgiuele, the nutrition director of operations and clinical integration, said a few of the Y’s staff members were working with the after-school program when they noticed the hunger issue.

“Kids were coming to get a snack after school with us, and we realized they weren’t eating again until school the next day,” explained Furgiuele. “We recognized there’s a lot of food insecurity and food insecure families and kids in this area, and we wanted to meet that need.”

From this realization, the YMCA of Western North Carolina created a nutrition outreach program to promote science-based and simple nutrition education tools to be used in the Y and outside its four walls.

The nutrition outreach provides snacks through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), a year-round meal program.

“The CACFP is federally funded and state run, and we get reimbursed if we follow certain guidelines to provide a super snack,” said Furgiuele. “That snack is made up of a fruit, vegetable, whole grain, protein, and milk or cheese as their dairy option. We’re providing a full meal for 27 of our after-school sites.”

Another way the Y fights food insecurity is through a mobile markets program that started as a pantry out of a shed. There are now three vehicles the Y uses to travel to public housing neighborhoods, and run 32 free mobile produce markets in the communities to provide healthy and fresh foods.

“Going from a pantry in one location to now serving five counties increases that access point to people who know about the Y and know what we’re doing is important,” said Furgiuele. “People often think of the Y as just a gym or a place to swim, but we’ve done a lot of work to increase that awareness in the community.”

One area of the nutrition outreach program the YMCA of Western North Carolina hopes to grow is its clinical integration within the mobile markets. In 2017, it partnered with Humana to screen for food insecurity. When patients come to health clinics they are asked two questions, called Hunger Vital Signs, created by the Academy of Pediatrics and Feeding America.

“They are asking the patient if, within the past 12 months, they have run out of money to purchase food, or struggled to keep nutritious food in their household,” said Furgiuele. “If the patient answers ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ for either of those questions, they screen positively for food insecurity. At that point the physician has the conversation that food is important for your health and they will refer them to our program.”

As the Y looks to grow its nutrition outreach program, the clinics are where Furgiuele hopes to find the most change. With referrals from licensed physicians, the YMCA nutrition outreach program will hopefully be a space to offer healthy meals year-round.

“We’re trying to implement integration with more clinics,” said Furgiuele. “If someone says they don’t have enough money or it’s too expensive for them to buy healthy foods, the physicians will have our program as a resource for them.”

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