Philanthropy is supporting increasing hours and space for the MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center food pantry, which provides families with fresh fruits, vegetables and lean meats.

The staff at Massachusetts General Hospital Chelsea HealthCare Center and the Mass General Center for Community Health Improvement (CCHI) recognized that hunger and access to nutritious food were problems in the community. So in 2013, the health center opened a small food pantry in a hallway for patients.

Chelsea business leaders, many of whom own companies that produce and distribute food, committed to the effort.

But the need was greater than what they could provide.

Looking for ways to help more families, Mass General leadership and Patty Ribakoff, a Mass General supporter active in finding solutions to community health problems, approached Chelsea business leaders and asked them to partner with the hospital.

The business leaders, many of whom own companies that produce and distribute food, committed to the effort. Their donations resulted in the pantry opening an additional day per week, to a total of three days a week. The number of patients it serves weekly rose 75 percent, from 158 to 276. The impact will extend from helping 391 family members who share meals to 587, a 66-percent increase.

Food Pantry Distribution

The pantry moved from a small corridor to a discreet, renovated area on the health center’s first floor. Now, there are more shelves for rice, potatoes and cereal and more refrigerator space for fresh fruits, vegetables and chicken.

Patty Ribakoff
Patty Ribakoff

With the expansion, the pantry expects to distribute 63,930 pounds of food each year. The food is delivered in partnership with The Greater Boston Food Bank, which distributed 57.7 million pounds of food in 2016. And patients can still use the food pantry without neighbors or friends realizing it because it’s located in the health center.

“The local Chelsea community rallied around the effort and, in learning of the needs, immediately understood the impact they could provide,” says Ms. Ribakoff, who helped start the original food pantry.

“The best place to be operating a food pantry is inside the hospital’s health center because it preserves our patients’ dignity,” Ms. Ribakoff adds.

Addressing Hunger

“MGH Chelsea is truly embedded in and woven into the fabric of this community.”

Hunger is a big problem in Chelsea, says Yahaira Guzman, coordinator of the Food for Families Program at MGH Chelsea. “I have a lot of people who tell me, ‘I only have $50 a week to feed a family of four,’ ” she says. Of the more than 3,700 patients screened for food insecurity each year at the health center, about 25 percent report running out of money for food and/or needing assistance with food resources. Ms. Guzman says the food pantry gives priority to patients with the greatest need.

“Proper food and nutrition are critical for good health,” says Joan Quinlan, vice president for Community Health at Mass General. “The emphasis of the Food for Families food pantry is on fresh, whole foods — fruits and vegetables, lean meat, low-fat dairy products and whole grains.”

Read more about Mass General’s community health programs:

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Fresh Produce: Study Makes Healthy Choices Easier
Community Health: Mass General Tackles Tough Issues

Ms. Quinlan adds, “The food pantry plays a unique role, particularly for newly arriving immigrants who are not eligible for government-sponsored food programs due to their immigration status.” For example, an undocumented pregnant woman cannot access any food programs until her child is born, and then the benefit only applies to the baby.

Patients from 25 Countries 

MGH Chelsea helps immigrants adapt to life in the U.S. in a variety of ways, from providing care for the psychological effects of war to helping patients learn about debit cards. The center’s patients are from at least 25 different countries and speak at least 21 different languages, says Jeannette McWilliams, the MGH Chelsea HealthCare Center’s administrator.

“MGH Chelsea is truly embedded in and woven into the fabric of this community,” Ms. McWilliams explains. “We have a health center in the high school, partner with the police on a program for children who witness or are the victims of violent crimes and have employees who sit on the Board of Health and Rotary.”

Philanthropy Can Help Food Pantry

Ms. Ribakoff is a trustee emeritus of the hospital’s Board of Trustees who chairs the trustee committee on community health. She says the food pantry is an extension of the mission of Mass General, outlined in the founding letter of 1811 that states when in distress “every man becomes our neighbor.”

“Our ultimate goal is to be open for as many hours as required to serve as many patients as are in need,” Ms. Ribakoff says. “To do this, we will need additional philanthropy.”

To support the Food for Families Program at MGH Chelsea, please contact us.