Addressing food insecurity: How Boston Children’s makes food accessible for patients

A checklist with two green check marks and one red "x" next to an image of grain.
Families facing food insecurity and dietary restrictions are encouraged to speak up and ask for help. (Images: AdobeStock, Illustration: Fawn Gracey/Boston Children’s Hospital)

Food insecurity is more common than you might think, affecting an estimated 21.1% of Massachusetts households with children in 2023. To add to the stress, families of children with dietary restrictions who face food insecurity are frequently left with limited options to find proper nutrition. One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to addressing food insecurity is de-stigmatizing the discussion surrounding it.

Families facing food insecurity may feel embarrassed to share their situation with their care teams; however, it’s important to let families know that they aren’t alone. 

“There can be a stigma attached to food insecurity, and we don’t want anyone to feel shamed or embarrassed that this is something they are struggling with,” explains Anna Rouse, a clinical social worker for the Growth and Nutrition Program in Boston Children’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition. “Food insecurity can be short or long term, which is why regular screening is so important.”

The Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition at Boston Children’s is listening to the community’s needs and providing a wide variety of resources to assist families facing these hardships.

How community comes together

All patients seen in the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition are now given a short questionnaire to share with their care team if they are facing food insecurities and require assistance. It’s private and made simple so families can feel confident in asking for help.

Boston Children’s works with local community resources to provide nutritional food options for anyone who may need them. Rooted deeply within a community of dietary and nutritional expertise, the division works to provide families with a variety of resources to accommodate their child’s needs.

Once such resource offered to families is the Family Food Connections food pantry, located in Jamaica Plain within the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments – next to Boston Children’s at Martha Eliot. What makes this food pantry special is that it is one of the only food pantries in Massachusetts that offers food accommodating the dietary needs of children with celiac disease.

“Food is truly the only medicine for children with celiac disease, so having proper resources creates a lasting positive impact on families who are faced with food insecurity,” shares Vanessa Weisbrod, director of the Celiac Disease Program.

Learning and growing resources

While the Family Food Connections food pantry not only provides inclusive dietary options, it also offers classes to teach families affected by food insecurity how to prepare healthy meals.

Hosted virtually, meal preparation classes provide families the ability to take what they learn and apply it to their everyday lives. “From learning the basics of what kitchen tools to use, to preparing seasonal dishes with the food available at the pantry — we’ve seen families benefit in so many ways through these classes,” shares Sharon Weston, senior clinical nutrition specialist for the Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

“We have parents and their children joining in and asking questions about common food alternatives to accommodate dietary restrictions or asking about what kitchen tools should be used — many things folks who are not food insecure take for granted,” explains Weston. “These classes provide a space for families to learn and ask as many questions as they need, all within a community that shares and grows together.” 

Not only are families able to use the food pantry and learn how to make great meals — they can also utilize a community garden to pick fresh vegetables and incorporate them into their meals. The Friendship Garden, located at Boston Children’s at Peabody, is a community garden where patients and providers alike can grow vegetables and get their green thumb working. “The community garden is focused on being used by both Boston Children’s employees and patients to promote not just nutrition-based learning, but also helping folks get outside and decrease anxiety through gardening,” shares Weston.

From dietary restrictions to nutritional challenges, families should be able to access the proper food to keep their children healthy and feel empowered to speak up when help is needed.

“My hope is that once the door is open, people might become more willing to bring up their food insecurity status. If we are regularly talking about it, we are more likely to catch those that might otherwise slip through the cracks,” shares Rouse.

To learn more about how Boston Children’s addresses food insecurity, check out the following resources:
Family Food Connections

Additional resources for Massachusetts:
Project Bread Foodsource Hotline
Project Bread and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Massachusetts food pantries
Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition Program (WIC)

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