When you think of your typical food bank, rows of canned goods across dozens of shelves in a warehouse often come to mind. Nowadays, the inventory of Maine’s food banks and pantries can include frozen goods, fresh produce and some proteins in addition to shelf-stable food, all waiting to be disbursed to those most in need. These facilities provide an essential service by matching the needs of residents in their respective communities to the many donors who supply them with food.
The MaineHealth Food Pantry at Franklin has served about 150 families through 7,000 meals since it began and has involved over 8,000 pounds of food. Candle photo/Shutterstock.com
For one Franklin County hospital, however, they’ve taken the food pantry concept much further.
The MaineHealth Food Pantry at Franklin, a collaboration of MaineHealth’s Franklin Community Health Network and Good Shepherd Food Bank, began about seven months ago at its Mt. Blue Circle facility in Farmington (500 feet down the road from Franklin Memorial Hospital). Still in its infancy, the program is their first hospital-affiliated program under the auspices of its Healthy Community Coalition of Greater Franklin County and aims to tackle food insecurity in Franklin County.
And food insecurity is an issue in Maine. According to a report provided to Maine’s Legislature on Feb. 8, about 11.4 percent – or over 153,000 Mainers – suffer from low or very low food insecurity. The problem affects nearly one in five children, and Maine ranks highest among all New England states for those most at risk of food insecurity, including families with higher incomes. In fact, four in 10 food-insecure Maine households don’t qualify for Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits.
In addition to its human toll, food insecurity also costs the state about $370 million a year in direct services, and about $700 million more to cover indirect but related health, special education and other expenses. Additionally, it’s not hard to see how hunger can lead to many other health problems or chronic disease, especially among children in single-parent households, which suffer the highest food insecurity in Maine, followed by those who are disabled.
Hospital-affiliated collaborations like MaineHealth’s food pantry in Farmington and their similar one at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway are targeted to meet such needs directly, as the facilities cater to patients and employees alike.
According to LeeAnna Lavoie, director for Health Community Coalition, who took over the center in November, the concept stemmed from the state’s most recent Community Health Needs Assessment, which identified nutrition and social determinants of health among several health priorities for Franklin County.
“Through that process we developed a plan – food insecurity was in the top four needs of the community along with mental health, substance use disorders and access to care,” she said. “Part of our vision, which we received a Hannaford grant, is to expand the pantry and provide a place where people can come and learn how to cook healthily. It’s a place where we can make food positive, where it can be healing.”
Lavoie said the pantry’s staff are all health educators, and they envision adding a kitchen to the pantry where cooking, health and nutritional instruction centered on healthy eating and living could take place. In all, the center has served about 150 families through 7,000 meals since it began in July, and has involved over 8,000 pounds of food, some of which was provided through their partnerships with local farms and school gardens.
Still, it’s reaching families among their patients and employees who are in need that still presents a challenge for the pantry.
“We have a mix of people who are accessing the food pantry, and we have emergency food bags for patients that screen positive for food insecurity,” Lavoie said. “But some people will say, ‘I’m not that bad – I want to save this service for other people.’ People don’t want to ask for help.”
While it’s still a pilot program, concepts like this are notable and may be the future. If we can not only address food insecurity but also teach the techniques that can help solve it, therein lies the real solution.
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