Sofia Carreno in the HUP Food PantryAfter a parent delivers a baby at HUP, the postpartum nurses on Silverstein 8 are there to care for the parent, infant, and family until they’re discharged. They help establish newborn feeding, provide education to parents, and other post-delivery basics.

For the last few months, three nurses have also been asking patients a few simple questions about food – and if the patients “screen positive” for food insecurity, the nurses offer them a bag of groceries from the HUP Food Pantry to take home.

This pilot program is just one way that Sofia Carreno, MSN, RN, HUP’s nursing professional development specialist for community engagement, and Jessie Reich, MSN, RN, the director of Patient Experience and Magnet programs, are working to expand the hospital’s food pantry from a pop-up pandemic relief effort for employees facing sudden financial hardship due to changes like a spouse’s job loss, into a broad-reaching program to help the community, with a vision to help all food-insecure patients.

Between June 2020 and November 2021, the HUP Food Pantry gave out nearly 5,000 bags of food and collected over $70,000 in donations, which went toward food purchases to keep the pantry stocked. If you’d like to donate money to the pantry, go here. To volunteer in the pantry, sign up here.

“It can be really hard to get to food pantries or places that are offering free food, especially for a new parent with a newborn baby. So if we have the opportunity to intervene right at that moment, it makes a really big difference, versus handing the patient a list of places,” said Rosemary Thomas, MPH, CHES, director of operations for the Penn Medicine Center for Health Equity Advancement, a partner in the Silverstein 8 pilot. “In the bigger picture, this makes a statement about our health system’s investment in the lives of our patients and employees: that we recognize this is a need and we are working to address it.”

In December, nurses Krystal Thomas, BSN, RN, IBCLC, Allona Briggs, MSN, RN, and Noelle Dominic, BSN, RN, began providing postpartum patients with a questionnaire posing two questions: whether, in the past 12 months, they worried their food would run out before they got money to buy more, and whether there was a time during that period when the food they bought actually didn’t last and they didn’t have money to buy more.

If the patient answers yes to either question, they can opt to receive a bag from the HUP pantry containing enough groceries to feed a family of four for at least a day. They can also sign up for a box of fresh produce to be delivered to their home from Hungry Harvest, a community program.

The nurses have been working on different ways to introduce the program and administer the questionnaire in a way that doesn’t make the parent feel offended, embarrassed, or afraid that a “yes” will lead to monitoring by other agencies.

Sofia Carreno in the HUP Food Pantry“We’ve worked really diligently within our group to determine the best way to ask questions so our patients understand this doesn’t come with a level of judgment or bias and that we just want to feed the need,” Krystal Thomas said.

So far, she said, at least a few patients per week have screened “positive” for food insecurity – defined as not having access to enough food to stay healthy – and accepted a bag from the pantry. In one case, a mother of six receiving public assistance said that she was managing fine, but the food would be helpful. Another was a professional-looking couple that the nurse wouldn’t have guessed could use some extra groceries.

Chronic hunger affects millions of families and is connected with many poor health outcomes, including higher levels of chronic disease, higher probability of mental health problems, more hospitalizations, and longer inpatient stays.

Ultimately, Carreno wants to address the root causes of food insecurity in patients. In January, she and Reich, working with Penn Nursing, the Penn Center for Community Health Workers’ IMPaCT Program, and the Helen O. Dickens Center for Women – an OB/GYN clinic that serves mainly Medicare, Medicaid, and uninsured patients – won a $10,000 grant from the Penn Nursing Innovation Accelerator to help pregnant women obtain the resources they need for a healthy pregnancy and long-term stability.

In the future, Carreno hopes to be able to offer programs like this one – and the pilot on Silverstein 8 – to all patients who qualify at HUP.

“The bigger vision is to reduce the burden of food insecurity among patients, so that they can stay healthy and have better quality of life,” Carreno said. “Process innovations like ours meet patients where they are, prevent unnecessary health care costs, prepare our nursing workforce for the future, and most importantly, equip patients with long-term solutions for food security.”

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