In 2003, a refugee from Cameroon in central Africa arrived in Boston without food. Boston Medical Center’s Center for Refugee Health referred Emile Kamadeu to the hospital’s then 2-year-old Preventative Food Pantry. The following year, Kamadeu landed a job as a coordinator at the pantry and after receiving a college degree, now serves as a member of the hospital’s IT department. BMC president and chief executive officer Kate Walsh, who has served in the post for four years, says the pantry is continuing to grow since it was launched in 2001. At first, it provided about 500 patients a month with “prescriptions” for healthy food and resources that fit dietary restrictions and lifestyles. In October, the pantry set a new record by serving 8,036 people in a month, which it shattered last month, falling eight patients shy of 9,000.
Q. Tell me about the early days of the pantry.
A. It started as an informal food pantry many of our pediatricians had developed in their offices. A number of our patients had identified food and security as one of their chief complaints, so pediatricians started keeping canned goods, formula, and crackers. They gave them to patients on visits, but it was becoming a little bit unwieldy. We also have the Grow Clinic, which is designed to help kids who have failure to thrive or malnutrition get back on the right growth curve. So my predecessor, with a group of committed physicians and philanthropists, started a food pantry basically to serve pediatric families.
Q. Once a patient gets a referral from a health care provider, what happens?
A. The fact that you’ve been referred is like a referral to any other clinic or practice. That referral includes your dietary needs and restrictions. For instance, if you’re a diabetic or a frail elder with a cancer diagnosis who needs more protein, the pantry knows it. And when the prescription for food is filled, that also goes into your medical record. When you come back to see your physician, she can say, “I noticed you didn’t go back to the food pantry. Are you still challenged by food insecurity in your home?” So it creates kind of a therapeutic milieu around nutrition, which I think reduces some of the stigma associated with going to the food bank.
Q. There’s also a demonstration kitchen.
A. It’s a place where we can teach people healthy recipes based on what’s available in the pantry. So people will say things like, “I hate kale,” but then we make a really good recipe with kale and people are coming to like it. In the kitchen, we have a woman named Tracey Burg, who is a registered dietician and a chef. She also is very practical and gives you really good tips, stuff I didn’t know, like if you ever want to peel a squash, put it in the microwave for 10 seconds. She runs classes that we have for newly diagnosed diabetics, for families with kids, for people who are working on obesity.
Q. Most of the food is provided by the Greater Boston Food Bank. How does that partnership work?
A. Our food pantry was started by really smart, effective, and compassionate physicians who saw a problem and chose to address it. But we couldn’t do this without a partnership with another strong not-for-profit, a civic institution. The Greater Boston Food Bank provides us with 10,000 pounds of food every week and we couldn’t sustain this without strong philanthropic support. So in many ways, it’s really the best of what our city has to offer.
Q. What’s in store for the pantry’s future?
A. I think the reduction in food stamp benefits or SNAP benefits is one of the big challenges that all health care providers are facing and certainly a place like Boston Medical Center that disproportionately serves low income people is seeing that up close and directly. So we’re very happy that the food pantry is here to help us bridge the kind of episodic hunger that we see in this country. When Boston Medical Center completes a campus redesign, the food pantry will be placed in a much more accessible location. We’re kind of, if you will, renewing our vows to this commitment to our patients and their families. The demonstration kitchen is going to move into the hospital cafeteria so that the nutrition education can be spread through our own staff and also to patients and families that don’t necessarily access the food pantry but want to be as healthy as they can be. The whole redesign will be completed, hopefully, by 2017.