I never thought I would become an RD during a pandemic, and I was surprised that my first job wasn’t on the front lines of a health care setting but at a nonprofit community agency. Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency (OLHSA), founded in 1964, strives to break the cycle of poverty and empower communities and families to gain the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to improve their quality of life. One of my first tasks on the new job was to help coordinate a pandemic-relief food delivery program with two departments serving the agency’s most vulnerable clients.
The OLHSA Marketplace program, which ran from November through December 2020, provided food and household items for clients through contactless delivery. I was excited about this program since it was a new and creative way for RDs to help clients during the pandemic. Although the program has ended, our agency was able to help more than 200 low-income individuals and families in Metro Detroit.
The Q-Cares Kit Assistance Program, funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, allocated funds for the OLHSA Marketplace program. Participants in the Marketplace program had to meet basic eligibility requirements, including living at or above 200% of the poverty line, quarantining due to COVID-19, awaiting COVID-19 test results, or being a senior, vulnerable, or immunocompromised person. Individuals from these populations were a perfect fit for the program because they could continue to receive needed services while reducing their risk of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.
OLHSA staff identified those in need of the Marketplace program’s services by screening their clients and through a secure client database, where staff could pinpoint those with little or no income or who had communicated a history of food insecurity to an RD. Staff members, including RDs, made outreach calls to clients who met the criteria. Clients who expressed interest in the program were recorded on an Excel spreadsheet that was accessible only to the staff members working with the program.
The basic structure of the program was as follows: Participants received $250 in November and the same amount in December to select fresh and frozen food and household items via a virtual marketplace, enabling them to customize their kits and choose the products they wanted as opposed to receiving a standard box. All products were delivered directly to participants’ households, and any of their leftover funds from November were rolled over into December. These funds were accessible through a participants’ personalized account on the OLHSA Marketplace website.
Clients who signed up for the program provided their mailing and e-mail addresses to the supplier, Atlas Wholesale Food Company, which contacted them only about order updates rather than for marketing purposes. The first e-mail from the supplier included information on delivery dates and confirmed their mailing address. It also provided a username and password, a link to the OLHSA Marketplace website, and important information such as delivery dates could be changed only if they contacted the supplier, and that the supplier would send an e-mail after they placed an order and when they could place their next order.
Once the 200 participants who enrolled in the program received their first e-mail and created their accounts, they had access to the website at any time to browse or order boxes. When participants logged into the website, they could see all the boxes available for purchase, along with links for RD-developed healthful eating handouts. Each box on the website listed what items were in each box and the quantity of each item. Although the stock for all boxes was subject to change, the supplier notified OLHSA staff members through e-mail of any changes, enabling them to update the stock on the website within the day.
While nonfood household items were available to purchase, most of the boxes offered were food boxes with a variety of fresh, quick-frozen, or shelf-stable options. Meal kits were among the most popular types of food boxes and included quick-frozen protein, such as salmon or chicken breasts; a starch, such as macaroni and cheese or red potatoes; and a seasonal vegetable medley.
Participants also enjoyed “themed” food boxes that highlighted pantry staples, fresh produce, or quick-frozen meats. The two boxes that featured the pantry staples included whole wheat crackers, apple juice, and vegetable oil. Participants also could choose two boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, including a variety of locally sourced produce from the Metro Detroit area. Boxes of locally sourced meats, which featured quick-frozen breakfast meats, burgers, and other meats, also were available.
To reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus and provide participants access to goods that were hard to get in the early stages of the pandemic, OLHSA offered two different boxes of household items. One box, the cleaning supplies box, included items such as scouring cleaner, dish soap, and toilet paper; the other, the personal protective equipment box, contained one gallon of hand sanitizer and 25 three-layer face masks. These two boxes were popular, and participants appreciated that these items were readily available.
Because there were many boxes to choose from, some participants needed added assistance over the phone. The three RDs in the program used this opportunity to provide nutrition counseling, such as discussing which boxes fit participants’ lifestyle choices. RDs also accommodated participants’ dietary needs and preferences, often discussing the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), renal, diabetes, or Mediterranean diets. So, along with receiving help placing their orders, participants could receive food that met their desired health goals.
When participants placed their last order, a brief was available for them to fill out. Of the 200 participants, 26 completed the survey. Approximately 65% of respondents stated that, before the program, limited funds prevented them from getting enough food to feed themselves or their families, and 35% reported that, preprogram, they sometimes had inadequate food to eat in the previous week. Although accessing food was challenging for some participants before the program, many were pleased with their orders and showed their appreciation for the program through the survey.
The participants who completed the survey said they especially enjoyed the salmon meal box and the cod fish box. Although these two boxes tended to run out quickly, they loved that they helped them get more protein in their diet. Many of them also enjoyed the fresh fruit and vegetable boxes and appreciated that fresh and local produce was available to them during the winter months.
Some of the respondents reported that they didn’t have enough freezer space to store all their items. Instead, they wished the program offered more pantry items such as peanut butter and beans. Many also were interested in receiving more boxes that provided a wider variety of meats. The three meat boxes in the program featured ground beef, chicken thighs, and sausage; however, participants also would have liked pork cutlets, ribeye, and other beef cuts. These survey results will be helpful for potential future OLHSA Marketplace programs.
The pandemic changed everything without a moment’s notice, but the OLHSA Marketplace program was able to make life a little bit easier for some of the agency’s clients.
— Sophia Condic, MS, RDN, is a Michigan-based dietitian who’s currently working at a community clinic. She’s interested in creating an interdisciplinary career that focuses on mixing the art and science of dietetics.