Spotlight on Health Department Programs for National Public Health Week

During its inaugural year, the Adams County Health Department (ACHD) is centering and celebrating cultures in health to advance the health and well-being of individuals who live, work, and play in Adams County. As part of National Public Health Week (April 3-9), ACHD is spotlighting its multi-pronged and community-driven approach to increasing access to safe, affordable, and culturally relevant food for all residents.

One in eight residents and one in five children in Adams County faces food insecurity, which is a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. Persons of color and persons experiencing low-income or poverty in Adams County are disproportionately impacted by food insecurity and are more likely to face structural barriers to food access. ACHD responds directly through innovative, programmatic approaches, policy work, and community-driven solutions.

ACHD, which opened its doors in January, is distinct amongst its peers in Colorado for having dedicated staff to address food security and food systems in the county. Tessa Cushman, a registered dietitian, is ACHD’s Food Security Specialist and works closely with community partners to oversee food access programming to support local agriculture, economic stability, and health equity while ending hunger in Adams County.

“When ACHD heard from community members that access to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods was an ongoing need, we knew we needed resources to address this complex issue,” said Monica Buhlig, Director of ACHD’s Health Equity and Strategic Initiatives Division. “We have diverse communities, and the systems to address food access are complex. We are working to address food security holistically to meet our communities’ diverse needs.”

A prominent example of ACHD’s efforts is the Healthy Farmers Markets program. The multi-agency, coalition-led initiative exemplifies impactful, culturally relevant public health in action by providing monetary vouchers to community members to purchase Colorado-grown fruits and vegetables. In 2022 through coordination that occurred under the banner of Tri-County Health Department, over $40,000 worth of fresh produce was provided to community members at no cost while supporting local farms and producers. For 2023, the initiative is being resourced and supported through the new county health department. Intentionally hosted in areas that lack adequate access to fresh foods, the markets also convene free community resources, health services and screenings, local startup businesses, and entertainment into one hub to bolster community connections and ultimately improve health equity. ACHD intends to replicate this food access farmers market model in other areas in the county.

ACHD is also unique in its cross-programmatic approach within the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. ACHD’s WIC program provides nutrition education and food benefits to over 9,000 individuals in Adams County and the surrounding area. The program provides dual enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to help individuals and families access additional resources for which they qualify. ACHD’s Breastfeeding Peer Counselor Program, which is a support program of breastfeeding moms from the community, has provided services to over 1,000 families since opening.

“Having a collaborative and coordinated approach allows us to reach more participants to connect individuals and families to multiple programs and customize support around their needs to ultimately increase families’ access and utilization of healthy foods to improve participants overall health and nutrition outcomes,” said Michelle Harris, MPH, RDN, Director of Nutrition and Family Health for ACHD.

Other food access work at ACHD includes the WIC Produce Box program, which delivers weekly boxes of fresh produce to the doorsteps of WIC-qualified families; the Healthy School Meals for All school-based program; expansion of community garden plots; and the COVID-19 Outreach and Support program, which delivers free food boxes to community members testing positive for COVID-19. Additionally, ACHD has provided formal testimony and public comment on food access policy at the state and federal levels to elevate voices of the community around food access issues experienced in Adams County.

In the near future, ACHD would like to expand the reach of state programming, like Double Up Food Bucks and the Summer Food Service Program, and is looking to form and facilitate an Adams County food policy coalition. The coalition would shape the future of ACHD’s food access efforts by bringing together community members and food systems stakeholders to align work and shared goals.

“This work requires the collaboration from the contributors of all parts of the food system – from production to consumption – and should be driven and owned by community,” says Cushman.

As the end of the federal Public Health Emergency nears, ACHD and Adams County Human Services are preparing for the downstream impacts on food access and public health, such as the significant reductions in monthly SNAP dollars for recipients that went into effect in March. In response, the Healthy Farmers Markets will increase the voucher dollar amount and expand voucher eligibility criteria to increase access to fresh produce. Adams County Human Services provides a free, monthly food and resource drive-through in Thornton, as well as regular outreach sites across the county to increase access to enrollment in federal benefits.

This work would not be possible without the collective efforts of community partners such as the American Heart Association, Anythink Libraries, Bondadosa, East Denver Food Hub, and Nourish Colorado. Other salient partners include Adams County Human Services, the City of Thornton, the Colorado Blueprint to End Hunger, Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Nutrition Department, St. Anthony’s North Family Medicine Program, and the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

For more assistance or to donate or volunteer time, find a local food bank or pantry.

Questions on the above information can be directed to [email protected], and the programs can be contacted at the following:

Adams County Health Department