Boston Medical Center’s Preventive Food Pantry Merges Nutrition and Healthcare

Patients get referred to the pantry by their primary care physician.

Preventative Food Pantry

Inside the Preventive Food Pantry. Photos provided to bostonmagazine.com

Hippocrates may have been the one to say, “Let food be thy medicine,” but it’s Boston Medical Center (BMC) that’s actually making it happen.

BMC’s Preventive Food Pantry is the only program of its kind in the country, and it makes access to nutritious food an integral part of a patient’s medical care. Deborah Frank, a pediatrician at BMC, started the program—which she ran out of her desk—more than 10 years ago for children in The Grow Clinic, an outpatient program she directs that helps struggling children reach healthy heights and weights. Today, it’s a hospital-wide program that feeds more than 7,000 people each month.

“Nutritionists came to me and said, ‘I’m tired of having mothers come to me and burst into tears when I tell them what their children need to eat,'” Frank remembers of founding the program. “My colleagues were upset. They said, ‘Why do you have to wait until a kid’s malnourished before you feed people?'”

The pantry is available to all patients who cannot afford healthy food on their own. Patients are referred to the pantry by their primary care physician as part of their medical care regimen, meaning they receive foods specially tailored to their medical needs. Each family can visit the pantry twice a month, with each visit providing three or four days worth of food.

Latchman Hiralall, the pantry’s manager, says that the referral program is meant to mirror medical prescriptions, which is an integral to the pantry’s success. “When they provide a patient with a prescription, it becomes part of your medical care,” he says. “It’s more like going to the pharmacy. They do not hesitate to come.”

Frank echoes Hiralall’s point. “It’s not charity; it’s healthcare. From the patient’s perspective, they’re not begging, they’re doing what the doctor suggested,” she says. “It’s not like your entire neighborhood looks at you when you’re standing in a line going around the block.”

The pantry relies entirely on philanthropy, with the bulk of its donations coming from the Greater Boston Food Bank. But what sets the Preventive Food Pantry apart is its high standards for food nutrition. “What’s often in some pantries is the excess of the donor, not the need of the recipient,” Frank explains. “So if someone’s trying to get a tax exemption for getting rid of a lot of Marshmallow Fluff, that’s what you’ll find in your neighborhood pantry.”

This is not the case at BMC’s pantry, where all donations must meet certain health standards and storage capacity allows the hospital to dispense perishables like produce, meat, and dairy. Another differentiating factor, Hiralall says, is the pantry’s “Demonstration Kitchen,” which runs cooking classes to help patients prepare their newly acquired healthy ingredients. “A lot of our patients were not familiar with different ways of cooking food in a healthy manner, so the chef, who is also a dietitian, will usually teach them that,” he says. “She’ll also tell them which type of food to purchase, and they also get to try the different dishes.”

These efforts come together, Frank says, to make nutrition a cornerstone of healthcare and to help low-income families find access to healthy food—an incredibly important goal. “Food insecurity,” she says, “is one of the ways in which poverty etches itself on people’s bodies.”

This is not BMC’s first foray in prescribing a healthy lifestyle. Doctors there can also prescribe a subsidized Hubway membership through their “Prescribe-a-Bike” program.

For information about donating to the Preventive Food Pantry, call 617-414-3834 or 617-414-5263.

Preventative Food Pantry

Volunteers at work in the pantry.

  • Abby

    This is awesome!! It is so refreshing to hear that doctors are making a serious effort to promote healthy eating as preventative care and treatment — and especially to those who have trouble affording or accessing healthy foods. Too often in America people overlook their eating habits and are stuck taking prescription drugs to treat problems that can be cured with a healthy, nutrient rich diet. This should absolutely be a nation-wide movement. Thank you BMC!!