Native Health Center Recognized for its Efforts in Promoting Food Security

Native Health in Phoenix, Arizona, understands the importance of food security for the families they serve. In 2016, the clinic distributed over 30,000 meals through its Summer Food Service Program and USDA Dinner Program. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. The National Association of Community Health Centers named Native Health as one of three community health centers in the US. Native Health was recognized for innovation and best practices in reducing food insecurity in their community. This acclaim demonstrates that their program is replicable, sustainable and that the interventions impact health outcomes. The Home Visiting Program of Native Health is supported by a grant from the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program.

Food insecurity is a serious problem that affects children and families. Food insecurity is defined as not having reliable access to enough affordable, nutritious food. Being concerned about access to enough food has detrimental outcomes to family well-being. Ember Tahy, Project Coordinator for the Native Health Home Visiting Program, states, “We are wanting to do an activity but we want to take care of this (basic need) before we get to the activity. A lot of our home visits focus on family wellbeing."

Initially, St. Mary’s Food Bank approached Native Health to participate in a Summer Food Service program. Through the program, children (under 18) have access to healthy food. While this program was successful, it was clear that families were hungry year-round, not just during the summer. “It became apparent that food insecurity is a huge issue. We knew we had food insecurity issues all year round,” said Susan Levy, Communications and Community Relations Director. In 2015, Native Health approached St. Mary’s to begin a Dinner Food Service pilot program. The program received USDA funding to provide food to children throughout the year. Native Health realized that even with the program expansion, there was still a need for food and a need for adults to have access to food. The team continued collaborating with St. Mary’s Food Bank and the USDA. Together, they explored ways to provide food year-round for everyone (children and adults). In January 2017, the Backpack Program began. The Backpack program provides food once a week for families. Each family receives a Backpack(s) (a clear bag filled with approximately 10lbs non-perishable food) which is enough to feed a family of four for three meals. Native Health is set to expand their service area from one to three sites this summer.

In their 2017 home visiting needs assessment survey, the program continued to see food security as a major issue, as 38% of the respondents were concerned about buying or running out of food. Samantha Highsmith, Maternal and Child Health Programs Manager stated, “We knew it was there, but didn’t realize it would show up as strongly." Highsmith commented that it is hard for the home visitors to go into a home and discuss school readiness when the families are worried about running out of food. The Home Visitors provide referrals to the food banks and often bring the Backpack of food to the family. This can help keep a family engaged and keep their home visiting appointments. “Our visits are going up. They are engaging with us. They are not worried about what they are going to cook or about what they are going to eat over the weekend because (I’m) coming by on Friday,” said Tahy.

The Monthly Group Connections is another opportunity to focus on healthy eating and safe tips on how to prepare food. Additionally, families can attend the monthly Read It and Eat class. This is a family class, where participantsStuffed Bear wearing Native Health shirt leaning against a bag of food prepare a healthy recipe like Watermelon Sundaes or Cantaloupe Salsa. At the end of class, each family is provided a bag of fresh produce to take home. This class is in partnership with the Phoenix Public Library who begins the class with a food-themed book, with funding from Health Net Access. Highsmith states these programs help build the relationships with the families and “help us do the job we are there to do; home visits that center around education, resource referral, health screenings, and activities that foster development and the parent-child interaction.”

In addition to these programs, Native Health has built a continuum of food support for their families. Native Health partners with local retailers, other food banks, and community members to provide a Community/Traditional garden. Native Health also works with Native Seed Search to provide indigenous drought tolerant plants to the garden. “This is an important explorative piece in building cultural responsiveness in an urban community setting,” said Highsmith.

Native Health knows their job is not done yet. They will continue to look for ways to evolve, expand and sustain their efforts to provide food to their families. Highsmith concludes by saying, “Our eye is always to providing and procuring, but in a way that is sustainable, relevant and most helpful for our families. It is a growing and changing process with a lot of partners.”

For more information about Native Health’s Tribal Home Visiting Program, contact Samantha Highsmith, Program Director, at 602-279-5262 or

ACF’s Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program provides grants to tribal entities to develop, implement, and evaluate home visiting programs in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. The grants are intended to help develop and strengthen tribal capacity to support and promote the health and well-being of AIAN families, expand the evidence base around home visiting in tribal communities, and support and strengthen cooperation and linkages between programs that serve tribal children and their families. Find out more about the Tribal Home Visiting program and grantees.

November 1, 2017
Last Reviewed: November 7, 2017