By Ivey Schofield
Summer, a former nurse who lives in Columbus County, never expected to be on Medicaid. But when she was diagnosed in 2017 with breast cancer that required several rounds of $27,000 treatments, her family nearly went bankrupt.
“I became a financial burden,” said Summer, who asked to be identified by her first name only to protect her privacy.
Six years later, Summer is still battling cancer and has not returned to work. She and her husband, who is a farmer, struggled to buy enough food for themselves and their daughter.
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Then Summer got connected with Men and Women United for Youth and Families, a nonprofit in Bladen and Columbus counties that is participating in a new statewide program that provides free food to Medicaid recipients.
Now she gets weekly deliveries of 15-pound boxes filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy and meat.
“It’s been the biggest blessing of my life,” Summer said. “Nobody should ever be scared of whether they can feed their kid.”
Healthy Opportunities Pilots, which launched last year, is using up to $650 million in federal money to help Medicaid recipients get help with food, transportation, housing and domestic violence. Together, the services make up “the nation’s first comprehensive program” of its kind, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The program partners with organizations across the state, including Men and Women United, to connect with people in need who receive Medicaid and also with local farmers who sell their goods for the food boxes.
But some of the funding for Healthy Opportunities Pilots could end this month, causing concern for recipients and local community groups. The $100 million allocated for infrastructure and staffing during the first two years of the program will be gone, said Bailey Pennington, a DHHS spokesperson.
The state will continue to pay the fees for the program through October 2024, Pennington said. But some local organizations say they’re worried about operating without the additional capacity funding.
“If this program were to stop, it would be downhill for a lot of people,” said Stephanie Goss, the food hub manager at Men and Women United.
In Columbus County, where more than 40% of residents are enrolled in Medicaid, food assistance is the most requested service through Healthy Opportunities, Pennington said. More than one-third of the 206 HOP enrollees receive weekly food boxes.
Throughout the county, 17% of people experience food insecurity, compared to 12% statewide, according to County Health Rankings.
North Carolina lawmakers agreed in March to expand Medicaid, the federal health care plan for low-income residents. Nearly 3 million people in the state are already enrolled in Medicaid, and 600,000 more will be eligible under the expansion, according to DHHS.
About 4,000 additional people in Columbus County could become eligible for Medicaid – and for the services provided by Healthy Opportunities.
“We’re such an impoverished area,” said the Rev. Keith Graham, who serves on the board of directors at Men and Women United. “Our intent is to make an impact so people will not only get food but will also be able to live better.”
Graham said he hopes the state will extend the funding.
“It is making an impact in the community,” he said. “We want to serve the community in a greater capacity.”
Lori Feezor, who has a farm in Brunswick County, said Men and Women United pays her about $5 for a dozen eggs – $1 less than what she would make at the local farmers market. But the deal is worth it, she said, because she doesn’t have to leave home. Plus, the youth ambassadors at Men and Women United sometimes help her with harvesting.
“I’m guaranteed a volume that I can count on,” Feezor said, “and it’s at a price that’s sustainable for the farmer.”
But Feezor, who recently retired from the healthcare industry, said she isn’t largely relying on HOP as a source of income. If the program can’t fund itself by the end of this month, she said, she’ll just donate more of the eggs produced at her farm.
“I’m unique that way,” Feezor said, “but that’s not viable for people who are truly farming to make a living.”
Since she started receiving food boxes, Summer said she can now afford other necessities such as toilet paper and soap. She said she takes seeds from some of the produce and plants them in a garden.
“It is a comfort and a reassurance to know we will have food in the future,” she said. She hopes others will be able to take advantage of the program.
“It is so good that I don’t want it to end with my home,” Summer said. “This is something that needs to take place in every community.”