COPE’s Navajo FVRx Program, now in its sixth year running, provides young Navajo families with greater access to nutritious food and coaching on healthy lifestyles. Enrolled pregnant mothers attend monthly education sessions, where, in addition to information on healthy habits, they and their children under age six, receive vouchers to buy produce and traditional foods at local stores who then invoice COPE for payment.
What happens to this essential resource when a global pandemic shuts down much of the economy? We caught up with Ariel Shirley, FVRx Outreach Coordinator and Kymie Thomas, FVRx specialist, to find out how they are keeping the FVRx program running for the 200 families currently enrolled. Strategies include a pivot to education sessions by phone, delivering vouchers by mail and ensuring that families have an extended period of time to use them.
What are the major ways that Coronavirus restrictions have impacted FVRx program?
AS: We thought it would be much more difficult and that a lot of our sites would decide to pause because of the level of interaction needed to implement the educational sessions. It turns out they have been able to transition from in-person group sessions to health education portion on a one on one basis with participants. They do check-in calls every month to see how they are doing.
A lot of our sites do the Happy Homes Curriculum, which comes with a booklet for families to follow along with. Our health educators are still able to go through the modules for each session by phone and answer any questions that come up, as well as schedule follow-up calls with families. Once participants do that phone call, sites mail them the FVRx vouchers along with additional informational pamphlets. Then families can go and redeem those vouchers at the store as usual.
Have you made any adjustments to help families at this challenging time? We extended the expiration date of the vouchers by one month, which we’re hoping gives families the time to buy more and use the whole dollar amount of the voucher. We understand that families can’t come into town as often because of the quarantine and that they may need to buy more food than usual now that kids are out of school and eating all of their meals at home. A lot of families have expressed that the vouchers really help.
We’ve also adjusted the timeframe for health education sessions to work better for parents. Usually, the in-person session takes about an hour, and kids can be there playing with toys while that is going on. With young children at home, we’ve made the sessions much shorter. Our health educators have been really flexible with this whole transition, they’re doing their very best to provide this resource to families and I really commend them for it.
Why has it been especially important to keep FVRx going right now? Navajo Nation already has very high rates of food insecurity, without adding more restrictions. In the past month since COVID-19 has spread to this area, unemployment has also increased. So a program like this is absolutely critical for families at this time when their income is stretched and quarantine measures limit the ability to go out and purchase food.
The vouchers along with the education sessions go a long way to supporting families who are now preparing almost all of their meals at home. The coaching portion helps them to develop healthy habits for the whole family, such as having a routine schedule, getting adequate sleep every night and limiting screen time. Then the vouchers help remove some of those barriers to a more nutritious diet.
What has been the most rewarding part of the past month? It has been great to see enrollment stay steady so far. We are not as sure what will happen with recruitment of new families, but we are developing strategies to help handle those uncertainties and focusing on doing everything we can for our educators and stores and to make sure that families can continue to redeem their vouchers.
Even before this outbreak, families express their gratitude for these vouchers constantly. Even though we have not been able to see them in person, our providers tell us that it is even more true now. We know that kids enjoy exploring different types of fruits and vegetables and that families benefit from being able to make informed food decisions. Every time parents tell us their children prefer fruit to another sweet snack and that they eat more vegetables, everyone is happy about that.