Operation Food Search Transforms the Regional Landscape of Food Insecurity
Sitting down for a meal is a ritual most of us look forward to each day—but for the estimated 15% of Missourians who face food insecurity, the next meal is not a guarantee. Operation Food Search (OFS) works to ensure that all St. Louis area children, individuals, and families have the food they need to live healthy lives by distributing more than $31 million worth of food and necessities each year to 27 Missouri and Illinois counties.
To meet the immediate needs of those who face food insecurity, Operation Food Search runs programs such as Operation Backpack and Afterschool ReFuel, which provide children with food and snacks to get students through weekends and breaks in which school meals are not available. OFS’s emergency food distribution program sources, stores, and sorts millions of pounds of food and other essentials before providing them—free of charge—to a network of more than 330 community partners.
Food box distribution has been part of OFS’s distribution efforts for many years, but the federal assistance that came available as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was a game changer. CARES Act funding enabled OFS to purchase 840,000 pounds of fresh produce. In the summer of 2021, OFS served over 264,000 meals to children and distributed 16,000 boxes of pantry staples.
As OFS works to increase produce distribution, they have also updated their nutrition policy to clarify the kinds of food to prioritize. OFS dietitians collaborated with food procurement staff to set a policy that would increase the amount of healthy food being distributed. To champion change through innovation, OFS’s programs and initiatives seek to address long-term solutions to hunger and improve the overall health of individuals and communities.
“Meeting the immediate need is a vital part of what we do, but we also want to reduce the immediate need,” explained Jocelyn Fundoukos, Director of Communications at Operation Food Search. “With the Fresh Rx program, we can look at the gaps to see where we can make the most impact.”
Fresh Rx Prescribing Healthy Futures is a brand-new, pilot food prescription program in partnership with St. Louis Children’s Hospital that connects families with adolescents with Type 1 diabetes to food and family resources. Participants and their families will receive a weekly meal kit delivery, regular consultations with a registered dietitian and supportive services from a care manager.
Fresh RX Nourishing Healthy Starts, now in its third year, prevents many of the negative health effects of food insecurity by providing pregnant people with nutrient-dense meals. The 24-month pilot study showed that providing access to adequate nutrition during pregnancy can improve health outcomes and save healthcare costs—reinforcing the idea of food as a reimbursable healthcare expense.
The concept of food as medicine connects to OFS’s WIC Innovation Project, which will transform research findings into innovative program and policy solutions that increase the overall utilization of WIC.
“Everyone relates to the topic of food, so it’s a great entry point to talking about systems change,” said Fundoukos. “Give STL Day has helped us learn how to talk about our programs in a way that is easy to understand.” Over $63,000 was donated to Operation Food Search this past Give STL Day on May 5, 2022.