tags on every page of your site. -->
Feb 27, 2024
White House recognizes Cigna Healthcare initiatives to improve food security in Florida and Texas

Nutrition is a vital part of good health, and Cigna Healthcare is committed to promoting healthy eating and enabling access to healthful foods in communities across the United States. The company’s initiatives to improve food security and health literacy in the state of Florida and the city of Houston, Texas, recently earned recognition from the White House’s Challenge to End Hunger and Build Healthy Communities.

Food insecurity is on the rise in the United States, affecting more than 44 million people in 2022, a 31% increase over the previous year. In addition, dietary risk factors continue to be leading contributors to common chronic diseases. In March of 2023, President Biden launched a White House initiative to end hunger and reduce diet-related diseases by 2030 – all while reducing health disparities. These Cigna Healthcare initiatives contribute to achieving these objectives.

Promoting 'Food as Medicine' in Florida

Across Florida, Cigna Healthcare aims to equip select groups of health care professionals with the knowledge and tools to help them address food insecurity and to implement a Food as Medicine approach as an integral part of their clinical practice. This initiative also focuses on improving health literacy for Cigna Healthcare customers as it relates to the connection between dietary choices and the risk of common chronic diseases.

Clinicians in Florida who serve Cigna Healthcare customers in employer-sponsored plans are required to screen for food insecurity and other social determinants of health. A Cigna Healthcare care coordinator helps clinicians provide information and referrals to community resources such as local food banks, food pantries, and farmers markets to customers who have food insecurity and other nutritional issues.

Recognizing that eating habits can make a significant impact on health, Cigna Healthcare offers education on Food as Medicine to its employees and community health care providers. This training is provided by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM). So far, 20 health coaches and dietitians from Cigna Healthcare as well as health care provider partners from six accountable care organizations in Florida have completed this training.

“Cigna Healthcare is deeply committed to championing whole-person health through evidence-based and cost-effective strategies rooted in nutrition and the other pillars of lifestyle medicine,” said Dr. Kamla Angela Persaud-Reddy, market medical executive for Cigna Healthcare in the Central and North Florida markets and a board-certified physician in internal medicine and lifestyle medicine. “Healthful eating is vital in preventing and potentially reversing some of the common chronic diseases we see today, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Health care professionals can lower the burden of these diseases and expect better clinical outcomes when they are equipped and empowered to successfully support their patients in maintaining a healthy diet as part of their treatment plan.”

As a part of this effort, Cigna Healthcare has recently launched an online “Food as Medicine” webinar series to support customers in Florida. This educational series is an interactive live cooking demonstration geared toward preparing simple, healthy meals that are nutrient dense, fiber rich, and culturally appropriate. Each demonstration is led by a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician and a team of registered dietitians and nutritionists under the guidance of Cigna Healthcare onsite clinical operations manager Holli Rahmings. Each member of the team has completed the ACLM Food as Medicine education courses.

“Given that diet-induced risk is the leading contributor to disease burden, being able to prepare healthy meals at home is a critical life skill. Through this education series, we are hopeful that people will be empowered to make better dietary and cooking choices on their journey toward health,” Dr. Reddy said. She added that individuals who make health-conscious food decisions can influence their workplaces to offer more healthful meal choices.

The “Food as Medicine” series is part of the larger “Lifestyle Medicine” education series, which includes informational videos about other aspects of a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise, sleep, stress reduction, social connections, and the avoidance of risky substances.

Dr. Kamla Angela Persaud-Reddy (far left), market medical executive for Cigna Healthcare in Central and North Florida, stands with the “Food as Medicine” webinar team of health coaches and dietitians. Left to right: Shannon Parks, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN); Holli Rahmings, registered dietitian (RD), clinical operations manager; Cindy Rivera, RD; and Kelly Freno, RDN.

The Food as Medicine initiatives were offered to select Cigna Healthcare clients as part of a pilot in North, Central, and South Florida. “We are committed to empowering health care professionals and Cigna members to incorporate healthful foods as part of disease treatment and prevention,” said Dr. Marco Vitiello, market medical executive for Cigna Healthcare in the South Florida market. “This will lead to better health outcomes and lower prevalence of diet-related illness across the state.”

Improving food access and supporting family parks in Houston

In Texas, Cigna Healthcare is working with the City of Houston and the Mayor’s Office of Complete Communities to help reduce food insecurity and improve local parks in order to promote family health and vitality in under-resourced neighborhoods.

One key initiative is the sponsorship of Brighter Bites, a program that delivers free fresh produce directly to underserved children and their families at elementary schools and other community locations. Each week, families and teachers participating in Brighter Bites receive two grocery bags containing approximately 50 servings of fruits and vegetables, along with educational materials to help them prepare healthy meals at school and at home.

“The Brighter Bites program has effectively promoted long-term healthy eating habits in communities that are vulnerable to obesity and diet-related diseases,” said Dr. Mark Netoskie, central region medical executive for Cigna Healthcare responsible for the South Texas and Louisiana markets. “This sponsorship will help the program expand into more schools, improving the lives of an additional 500 Houston elementary school students and their families.”

Dr. Neema Stephens, national medical director for health equity at Cigna Healthcare (right), is pictured at the White House event with Dr. Shreela Sharma, co-founder of Brighter Bites.

To help encourage physical activity for children and families, Cigna Healthcare is also a sponsor of the 50/50 Park Partnership with the Houston Parks Board that supports the revitalization of local parks. Park improvements will be supported through partnerships with local community groups, expanding their capacity to care for and use these parks to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

Cigna Healthcare also hosts “Cigna Sunday in the Park” events six times a year at underserved neighborhood parks in Houston. These events offer complementary food, vaccinations, and fun activities for the whole family – all designed to promote exercise, wellness, and community enrichment.

Left: Families flock to the “Cigna Sunday in the Park” event held at Alief Park in April 2023. Right: Former mayor of Houston, Slyvester Turner, with Melinda Balezentis, vice president, national account executive at Cigna Healthcare and community engagement lead for the City of Houston.

“Having access to nutritious foods as well as safe spaces for exercise and recreation can make a significant difference in the health and development of children and their families,” Dr. Netoskie said. “We are proud to support Brighter Bites and the City of Houston as they advance the health and vitality of underserved communities in ways that are both meaningful and fun.”

The Houston initiatives were spearheaded by Melinda Balezentis, vice president, national account executive at Cigna Healthcare and community engagement lead for the City of Houston, and Dr. Neema Stephens, national medical director for health equity at Cigna Healthcare, in partnership with several local and community stakeholders.

“Both initiatives demonstrate the power of partnership in addressing health equity challenges at the local level,” said Dr. Stephens, who attended the February 27 White House event that celebrated the latest Challenge commitments. “By contributing resources to improve nutrition education and promote recreational physical activity for children and families, we aim to improve the health and vitality of the communities we serve.  We are grateful for our community partners, and Cigna Healthcare is honored to join the White House challenge to end hunger and build healthy communities.”

Cigna Healthcare’s food security efforts support The Cigna Group mission to advance health equity and reduce disparities for everyone.

three happy employees talking to each other

Our commitment to health equity

For more than a decade, The Cigna Group has influenced the development of solutions to address health disparities and promote more equitable health among our customers, our workforce, and in the community.

Learn more