New food pantry at UVA Children’s Hospital leans into the idea of food as medicine

A Morrison initiative provides healthy items to fight food insecurity and aid patient healing.
Food pantry
Photo courtesy of Morrison Healthcare

University of Virginia (UVA) Children’s Hospital in Charlottesville has opened a food pantry to help feed those in need.

The pantry opened in July, coordinated by Dr. Jeff Gander, a pediatric surgeon, and two Morrison Healthcare dietitians, Tegan Medico and Olivia Obertello.

Its goal is two-fold: to provide food for those who don’t have enough and to provide better food for patients with medical conditions in an effort to aid healing.

The team looked at the most prevalent health conditions among patients, such as cystic fibrosis, diabetes and obesity. “Food pantries are great, but sometimes it’s not the healthiest food, so we looked at what can we get for certain patients,” Gander says.

The most popular options are pasta, beans, oatmeal, olive oil, pancake mix, graham crackers and canned vegetables.

A few considerations went into creating the pantry. “Foremost, we aimed to stock it with nutrient-dense items across all food groups,” Medico says. “We opted for whole grains, legumes, canned fruits without added sugar, low-sodium canned vegetables, plant-based oils, canned chicken and tuna, and non-fat dried milk, for example.”

“Second, we knew we would expand to serve other patient populations, so we made sure to include some low-potassium fruits and vegetables. Finally, we also wanted to provide allergy-friendly alternatives, such as sunflower butter in addition to peanut butter.”

As the pantry expands, the dietitians plan to create educational inserts with health-related information and recipe tips.

They also had to be careful not to go overboard on the healthy side of things. “Children with cystic fibrosis need ample fat and salt in their diets, and we see many underweight children,” Medico says.

The pantry came to fruition following a project launched last November to provide fresh food to pediatric patients and their families. Since then, UVA has raised money from Molina Healthcare, as well as $3,000 from a local Kroger foundation, allowing it to buy the necessary foods, all of which are shelf-stable and healthy.

In the initial pilot phase in July, 20 different families used the pantry, and Gander expects that to increase to 30 to 40 as the word gets out.

Patients hear about the program at their doctor’s visit, and families are screened for food insecurity as children are being evaluated. They’re asked two questions and if they respond yes to either, they can talk to a social worker, who asks if would they like some food. If so, they are allowed to pick a limited number of items from the pantry. There’s also an informational poster in each clinic room.

Going forward, Gander hopes Molina will continue to provide donations. “I think they want to see how it goes and it seems like it will be in perpetuity,” he says. “If not, we’ll ask for grants and look for private donors.”

Long term, he hopes to expand it to every adult clinic throughout the UVA campus.



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