Why Boston Medical Center is prescribing Thanksgiving dinner

The hospital is fighting hunger and illness with a unique approach to food security.

–Benjamin Oliver / Boston.com

A week before Thanksgiving, a small room tucked inside Boston Medical Center was filled with boxes of butternut squash, cans of cranberry sauce and other ingredients.

Pat Oliver and other volunteers were busy assembling packages to give to local families so they can cobble together a turkey dinner. Otherwise, those families may not be able to afford the Thanksgiving tradition.

“It’s important because there are hungry people in the world,’’ Oliver said as she broke down boxes. “This a teeny, tiny way to make a difference in somebody else’s life. I’m grateful for what I have, and I’m grateful that there are places that will give food for people, so that they can get through each day.’’

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With the help of volunteers like Oliver, the hospital’s Preventive Food Pantry distributed a record 865 packages to families in need before the holiday.

The packages were given out on a first-come, first-served basis on the Friday, Monday and Tuesday before the holiday. Around 75 percent of the families picked up a Thanksgiving package last year, too.

“It just kind of blows my mind how many bags they’re going to end up producing,’’ said volunteer Cyrena Gasse. “It’s just cool that, in a small way, I’m helping to bring Thanksgiving to other people that may need it.’’

Each package contained a butternut squash, stuffing, cranberry sauce, Jiffy baking mix, macaroni and cheese, raisins, and a turkey.

“Thanksgiving is a special occasion for many, many families, and if we can help them get this all for free, it makes a lot of difference in their lives,’’ said Latchman Hiralall, the pantry’s manager. “You can see them, when they come to pick up the packets, how happy they are to get the whole meal at one place, and it’s for free.’’

The Preventive Food Pantry is unlike other food banks or soup kitchens: People must be referred or given a “prescription’’ by their doctor, who screens for nutrition-related illness or food insecurity. A referral will note whether the patient has special dietary needs due to a medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, and carts are specifically stocked for patients.

Latchman Hiralall is the manager of the Preventive Food Pantry —Benjamin Oliver / Boston.com
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Then there’s the Demonstration Kitchen, where a nutritionist-chef shows patients how to cook healthy meals with items available in the pantry across the hall. Recent demos have included how to roast a turkey, and what to do with Thanksgiving leftovers.

“You take away some of the stigma being poor and hungry when you make them part of the process,’’ Hiralall said. “So they’re selecting the food that they need. So we put a note in their medical records, and it becomes part of their medical record every time they pick up food. It makes a big difference in the way that we deliver food to them.’’

Patients can visit the pantry twice a month and get about three or four days worth of food from each visit. To get a Thanksgiving package, patients had to have picked up food from the pantry three times in the past year.

“You have to swallow your pride to come to a food pantry, and a lot of families wouldn’t want to go to the local food pantry. They’d rather come the hospital where they’re coming for care. I think that’s why our numbers have grown so much,’’ Hiralall said.

One in nine people in eastern Massachusetts doesn’t know where the next meal will come from, according to the Greater Boston Food Bank. A report on hunger in Massachusetts by the nonprofit Project Bread found the rate of household food insecurity in the state is 71 percent higher than it was 10 years ago.

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Hiralall estimated the pantry brings in 12,000 pounds of fruit, vegetables, and other food each week. The bulk of the food comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank year-round to serve the approximate 7,000 people who come looking for food. He said he’s received calls from all over the country from organizations seeking to copy the hospital’s success.

“We cannot go wrong with giving out healthy food to so many families that don’t want to let people know they are going hungry, they’re struggling with meeting their needs for food,’’ he said. “When the doctor’s prescribing them to come to the food pantry, it makes a big difference. They usually will come.’’

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