Deborah Frank, M.D., director of the Grow Clinic for seriously underweight children at Boston Medical Center, was approached by one of the clinic’s nutritionists about starting a food pantry back in the 1990s. “She said she was sick and tired of having mothers burst into tears when she told them what their children needed to be eating,” says Frank.

Their initial work in helping to feed the community led to the establishment in 2001 of what was one of the first hospital-based food pantries in the U.S., serving not just the original target of pregnant women and undernourished children, but anyone who needed to eat. Demand has exploded ever since, and this past summer, the hospital rolled out a significantly larger version.

With that, they now have expanded storage space to accept more donations and offer more cooking classes. Today, they distribute about 12,000 pounds of food a week, and the expansion helps BMC to meet the logistical challenges of storing and distributing food not for just the original 500 per month it was designed for, but thousands.

“We now serve 7,000 people per month,” says Latchman Hiralall, manager of the Preventive Food Pantry at BMC. “Patients in our emergency department and in more than 20 clinics get screened for food security and, if they’re found eligible, they come visit us at the food pantry. For 15 years, we made do with what we had. Now we have a lot more dry storage, our own walk-in fridge and freezer, and it’s much easier for patients to find us.”

The pantry provides groceries not only for the patient, but for his or her entire household. And they are careful to meet the individual’s medical needs, such as diabetes or hypertension. Hiralall always selects foods low in sugar, fat and sodium. “We are more like a 'food pharmacy,' ” he says. “The food is part of their health care.”

Hiralall says his biggest challenge is getting more fresh fruits and vegetables for families, which is what they ask for most. “We want them to come back. We want to give them what they need,” he says.

Another key piece of the food pharmacy at BMC is the Demonstration Kitchen, which is located in the cafeteria. Tracey Burg, a registered dietitian and the kitchen’s chef, runs classes loaded with useful, thrifty and healthful dishes using food from the Preventive Food Pantry.

Burg offers classes customized for different diagnoses, like heart disease or diabetes. She also offers a home cooking class for patients receiving food assistance, with healthful recipes to help them stretch their budgets. And she hands out healthful snacks on the pediatric floor each month, including recipes for parents to make the samples she offers.

“One of my aims is to get people to try different foods, and for them to realize it’s really easy to cook from home,” says Burg. To that end, she also offers “Cooking 101” classes that include culinary basics like knife skills, soups and stocks, and making bread from scratch.

At Thanksgiving, Hiralall and a team of volunteers provide more than 800 turkey baskets for families — a complete Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings.

Frank says that the ultimate solution to hunger is not a food pantry. “It’s important to acknowledge that just like the emergency room, this is necessary, but emergency food distribution isn’t a solution for hunger,” she says. “Hunger causes health problems but, ultimately, it’s a political problem that is solvable with the right policies.”

BMC's Preventive Food Pantry by the numbers

  • 1,500 square feet of space
  • 7,000 patients and family members fed monthly
  • 1/3 of families with young children who use BMC's ED report limited or uncertain access to food
  • 12,000 pounds of food distributed weekly 
  • 22 unique cooking classes offered monthly