In 2001, Boston Medical Center opened the doors to the Preventative Food Pantry after an overwhelming number of patients told their BMC physicians that they were having trouble affording nutritional food for their families.
Located in the Dowling Building, the pantry supplied food to 500 families per month in its early days. Today, it supplies over 50,000 pounds of food per month to more than 1,800 families in the Boston area community. That's 7,000 people per month – 40% whom are children.
Listen to this inspiring segment as Latchman Hiralall, the Manager of the Preventative Food Pantry at BMC, discusses the importance of giving back to those in need, helping the underserved population access to affordable healthy food options, and how it's not just about giving out food, the pantry is a part of their medical care at BMC.
Latchman Hiralall, DTR
Latchman Hiralall is the Manager of the Preventative Food Pantry at BMC. He is a registered dietetic technician dedicated to helping the patients refereed to him by their clinicians for a balance of fresh and packaged food to support their unique dietary needs. The Preventative Food Pantry feeds 7,000 to 8,000 patient families each month, giving the underserved population access to affordable healthy food options.
Melanie Cole (Host): In 2001, Boston Medical Center opened the doors to the preventive food pantry after an overwhelming number of patients told their BMC physicians that they were having trouble affording nutritional food for their families. My guest today is Latchman Hiralall. He’s a registered dietetic technician and the manager of the preventive food pantry at BMC. Welcome to the show. Let’s give an overview of the preventive food pantry and what is it and where is it located.
Latchman Hiralall, DTR (Guest): The preventive food pantry was started in 2001 as you mentioned and it’s now located in the Yawkey building,in the basement. We just moved here about 18 months ago. It’s a new space. The way it works, patients get screened for food and security at the clinics and if they're eligible, they get a referral to come. On the referral, the doctors will let us know if there are any special dietary needs in the family – if someone is diabetic or hypertensive – so we know what type of food to give to them. Once they come in, we have them fill out a form that will tell us how many people in the household and their ages because those are numbers that we have to report to the greater Boston food bank where we pick up the bulk of our food. Based on their dietary restrictions and their household size, we set up carts for them. We select the items for them and we bring it to a private area where they can take a look and we help them bag it, so they have an opportunity to switch off if they don't like something or if they have a lot of an item at home, they can leave it for other families, and then they'll take the rest. That also takes away some of the stigmas of being poor and hungry when you make them part of the process and it's part of their medical care. Every time they pick up food, we have to put the progress note in their medical record to let a provider know that they came. If there's no note, then the provider will know that they actually didn’t come and they can encourage them to come.
Melanie: There are no costs for these patients?
Latchman: There's no cost. They can pick up food every two weeks, two times for the month, we give them 3 to 4 day’s worth of food each visit so they get a week’s worth of food from us. It’s a supplemental program and that’s helping them out tremendously.
Melanie: What an amazing program. Tell us about the food itself. You are a registered dietetic technician, so a lot of the times when we hear about food and security, it’s even a bit of a paradox for some people because maybe the foods that they do choose are not very nutritious or we’re seeing many diabetics. Speak about how you use your nutritional background to help them make these better choices.
Latchman: We get about 90% of our food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. They have a live inventory, so when I go in to put my order for the week, I will select items that are appropriate for our patient population. Many of our patients are diabetic or hypertensive, so we have to make sure we bring in food that’s appropriate, so we usually bring in food that’s low in sodium and fat and sugar. It’s the general type of food for even the patients on regular diets, we encourage them to choose those items. We do not bring in food that’s high in sugar and fat and salt.
Melanie: There's a lot of fresh foods, things like fruits and vegetables and salad making materials?
Latchman: 40% of the weight we bring in are perishable items, which includes fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, cheese, eggs and stuff like that.
Melanie: What impact do you feel this has had on the Boston Medical Center community?
Latchman: We do surveys. It’s difficult to track outcomes because they're only getting a week’s worth of food from the food pantry, so we don’t know what exactly they're eating for the rest of the month, but we do surveys every year and we found out that the satisfaction is always over 90%. The family really loves what we're doing here, they love the food we're giving them and they're encouraged to come back. That means we're doing this right. We provide food to approximately 7,000 people per month. We bring in approximately 15,000 pounds of food each week from the Greater Boston Food Bank and we also receive donations from other sources, including Ocean State Job Lot and schools, temples, churches, individual donations, and we do food drive within the hospital around Christmas time as well to supplement what we receive from the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Melanie: What if they don’t know what to do with the perishable foods or how to cook them? Do you have an association with Boston Medical Center’s demonstration kitchen? Do you help some of these families learn how to cook some of this healthier food?
Latchman: We do have a demonstration kitchen right here and the chef who's also at a dietician, usually select items from the food pantry to do the classes and patients can go up and see the recipe how it’s prepared and they also have an opportunity to taste the product. They're encouraged to use food from the food pantry. If there are certain items, especially spices that they might have to purchase at the store, but if we notice there are items that they're not taking, we’ll give the chef a ring, have her come down, take a look, then she’ll prepare recipes with those items and have samples ready for the patients as well so they can taste it.
Melanie: Back to the beginning for just a minute, how do you identify these people? Is it the physicians themselves that might notice something – a child has lost a bunch of weight or in talking to their patients? How are you identifying the needs?
Latchman: We use two hunger vital signs screening questions at BMC. The first one is within the past 12 months, we worry whether our food would run out before we get money to buy more. The second question is within the past 12 months, the food we bought just didn’t last and we didn’t have money to buy more. These are questions that were developed by Children’s Health Watch and these are the two questions that we use for our screening, and if they answer yes to either or both of those, their food is secure and they’ll give them a referral to come to the food pantry.
Melanie: Summarize it for us, what a wonderful program that you're running there at Boston Medical Center, what you would like people to know about the preventive food pantry and how they can find out more about it.
Latchman: On our website bmc.org, there are Programs and Services, and under that tab, there's the tab for the preventive food pantry. There's also a video there that we received an award five years ago from Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire and the gift to us was a video. They came here for two days and compiled a 15-minute documentary, so that’s on the website as well so they can take a look at that, and our phone number is there as well if they need to call for information. This is not difficult to do. Like we did at BMC, we knock a few walls down, created a small space where we got started and once you get started, you can always expand. That’s what happened here because giving food and getting funding to feed hungry families is not too difficult. It’s a lot of work because we’re bringing in a lot of weight, but it’s very rewarding. We’re so happy that we could help so many families to feed their families at the end of the day.
Melanie: It’s absolutely a wonderful thing that’s offered at Boston Medical Center. Thank you so much. This is Boston MedTalks with Boston Medical Center. For more information on the preventive food pantry, you can go to bmc.org. That’s bmc.org. This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.