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Boston Children's, Boston Housing Authority BHA, Family Food Connections, graphic with groceries in bags and a box

Boston Children’s has launched a new program, Family Food Connections — a community food pantry located within a Boston Housing Authority housing development, the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments. The pantry is located in Jamaica Plain and next to Boston Children’s at Martha Eliot. It represents a unique collaboration between Boston Children’s and the Boston Housing Authority in that it will be open to patient families as well as residents of the housing development and from the surrounding neighborhood. The site will provide visitors with food, nutrition education and recipes, and assist them in connecting to other community resources. The site is open as of January 2022.

Families are continuing to struggle with having consistent, reliable access to food, due to insufficient financial resources, which has been exacerbated by COVID. Many families are also experiencing food insecurity for the first time due to the pandemic.

One of Boston Children’s Hospital’s strategies to address the urgent needs of families is by providing an accessible and comfortable site to get food and have a choice in what is taken home. Read on for other ways the hospital is addressing immediate needs and identifying longer-term solutions.

“Opening up a Boston Children’s community program such as this has been a long-time dream of many social workers and providers, and a topic of frequent discussion in the Office of Community Health,” says Stacy Walker, Director of Community Health Planning and Engagement in the Office of Community Health and project lead.

When a location, previously occupied by a multi-service agency and food pantry, became vacant within the Hailey Apartments in December 2020, it was an opportunity for the Office of Community Health and Boston Housing Authority to envision a space that could provide food without barriers to participation. The team researched several other community pantries including Boston Medical Center’s pantry, which provides food to patients on site.

After a year of planning, renovating, and development, the site is open to serve patient families and residents of the Hailey Apartments. Referrals will initially focus on patients from Children’s Hospital Primary Care Center, Martha Eliot, and the Adolescent/Young Adult Practice, as well as the Celiac Disease Program. The pantry will then start to open to other departments in the hospital.

The pantry has been named Family Food Connections to recognize the space as more than just a place to get food. The site will build upon the many connections that are made through food and bringing people and families together. Visitors can also participate in monthly cooking classes that will show how to prepare the ingredients taken home. Everyone will be able to view the cooking demonstrations and videos on the website.

It’s been an outstanding team effort with a number Boston Children’s departments planning weekly with the Office of Community Health — particularly Food Services, Facilities, Office of the General Counsel, Department of Accountable Care and Clinical Integration, Children’s Hospital Primary Care Center, and the Celiac Disease Program.

For the past year, this planning team has worked closely, bringing each department’s expertise, to ensure Family Food Connections will make all feel welcome. The team played a role in overseeing every detail from outlining the partnership with the housing development, the renovations needed at the site, the type of foods that will be made available, and hiring a Pantry Supervisor to manage the daily operations and work closely together with the community.

“The team wanted to optimize the space for visitors and create a positive environment,” says Michael Cogliandro, Director of Food Services, and planning team member. “Family Food Connections is also about reducing the stigma of food insecurity and giving people choices on how and what to feed their family. That was forefront in every decision made.”

An Advisory Board also was convened to provide input in decisions and to inform the team about community needs, how to communicate about the program, and even on the hours of operation and services provided. Members include residents of the Hailey Apartments, patient families, staff from community-based organizations, and Boston Children’s current and former staff.

“We’re also thrilled to provide allergy-friendly and gluten-free foods,” says Vanessa Weisbrod, Director of Education and Community Engagement of the Celiac Disease Program, and planning team member. “Patients from our program can be referred to Family Food Connections, which will be only one of two programs in Massachusetts that offer a regular supply of gluten-free foods for patients with celiac disease.”

Once fully operational, the team estimates that Family Food Connections will have about 1,600 visits and more than 3,000 bags of food distributed per month.

For the latest information, visit the program’s webpage.