In 2013, Walgreens and Vitamin Angels set out to address the health disparities leading to preventable deaths by distributing vitamins and minerals to women in low-income countries through local partners. After eight years of success, the partnership’s impact has grown exponentially, with more than 300 million women and children helped. Most recently, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Vitamin Angels announced a new goal: Reach 500 million women and children by 2025.
Although the milestone is one to be celebrated, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it apparent that health disparities are worsening for women everywhere. The UN reported that women have been disproportionately impacted in the past year and a half. They are earning and saving less, have less access to health services and more childcare needs, resulting in less time and fewer resources to dedicate to healthy pregnancies.
With success in delivering vitamins through on-the-ground partner organizations, Walgreens and Vitamin Angels have teamed up for another endeavor: delivering the same life-changing prenatal vitamins and minerals they distribute globally, directly to pregnant women in the U.S., starting at select Walgreens pharmacies on Chicago’s South and West sides.
COVID-19 and deepening disparities at home
In our own neighborhoods, there are women who do not have the information, access or ability to get prenatal vitamins that can set them and their future children on a healthy path. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these issues.
“COVID is a magnifying glass that does two things,” says John Gremer, senior director of community affairs at Walgreens. “It really shows us where there are inequities, but it also helps us focus on what’s important. One of those is a negative, and the other is a positive. When you see it, you can’t help but want to help.”
During a donation event during the first wave of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020, Gremer was assisting in the drive-thru lane, filling car trunks with items donated from Walgreens. He was happy to be participating at the event on Chicago’s South Side, when one attendee in particular caught his attention.
“One of the people who drove up to receive donations was pregnant and had a child in the back,” he recalls. “We put some food in her trunk, and some cleaning supplies and hygiene items, but it got me thinking. We had just finished an event with Vitamin Angels, and I wondered if this person had access to prenatal vitamins.”
Approximately 1 million women in the U.S. have limited access to prenatal vitamins and minerals due to gaps in insurance coverage during pregnancy. It’s not limited to one factor; a lack of transportation, insurance or finances can contribute, or even basic language barriers. Because of this, mothers may lack sufficient intake of nutrients to maintain their health and the health of their babies. Gremer was onto something, and started the process of engaging Vitamin Angels in discussions about assisting underserved communities at home.
Pilot project takes shape
Working in partnership with Robert Tompkins, group vice president of health and wellness at Walgreens; and Martha O’Bryan, manager of community affairs; Gremer and the Vitamin Angels team realized Walgreens’ footprint in medically underserved communities could serve as a starting point for a novel idea: offering prenatal vitamins to pregnant women, for free, through the pharmacy.
Bonnie Gordon, cause marketing advisor, and Katelyn Harbison, associate director of WBA’s partnership with Vitamin Angels, were immediately ready to act.
“Because of the availability of pharmacies, we could accelerate our domestic impact in order to help as many mothers and children as we could in communities Walgreens serves,” says Gordon. “Together, we created a plan that included expanded distribution of prenatal vitamins and minerals to marginalized communities domestically in order to reach pregnant women who were experiencing barriers to access. It’s a great way to expand the good work that’s already being done.”
By researching infant mortality and birth complication rates, the partners were able to affirm that 16 stores on Chicago’s South and West sides were located in neighborhoods where women stood to benefit from increased access to nutrition education and prenatal vitamins and minerals. Together, they agreed on a timeline and measurement of success: In six months, they wanted to reach 300 women.
“The hope is that we can reach many, many more,” adds Gordon. “We are working together to evaluate the project’s success as we go. It’s not just about the distribution of prenatal vitamins, but about education. The goal is to educate about the need to take the prenatal vitamins every day and follow a nutritious diet, which plays a huge role in fetal health.”
Putting a plan of action into action
Amy Peters, Walgreens healthcare supervisor for the Illinois North region, took point on coordinating the pilot with the 16 stores involved, ensuring educational brochures on nutrition and prenatal vitamins would serve as an adequate learning resource and make it clear where women could access the vitamins. Meanwhile, Gremer coordinated with Walgreens program partners like the First Ladies Health Initiative, primarily made up of local pastors’ wives, to distribute physical vouchers among women in the community. Through coordination with Vitamin Angels, numerous additional community organizations have signed up to distribute vouchers and provide education on the importance of prenatal nutrition.
Liz Reid-Tate, pharmacy manager at one of the Chicago Walgreens stores, understands the value of the pilot project and promotes the program during her shifts.
“When I speak with clinical managers and nurses from doctors’ offices, I let them know we have the program and it’s a great option if their patients don’t have insurance or have not yet been approved to receive governmental support,” says Reid-Tate. “They’re located in our neighborhoods, and they can get the word out, too.”
Although just under two months into the program’s launch, the enthusiasm and mutual respect between Walgreens and Vitamin Angels is profound. The potential for the program to influence the lives of women and their babies is vast and is something everyone involved has rallied behind.
“We knew that in Vitamin Angels, we had a partner who could make an impact and help out expectant mothers and babies get off to a good start and address health inequity,” says Gremer. “We are uniquely positioned to address this.”
As Gordon begins to measure how the program is performing to determine its future, she also knows that at the end of the day, changing the life of even one child is worth the effort.
“Your Walgreens store is already nearby. You’re used to going there, it’s along a bus route,” notes Gordon. “By increasing availability to women in their own neighborhoods, we’re increasing access, and giving women the best chance at a healthy pregnancy that we possibly can.”