From Left: BWFH’s Director of Community Health and Wellness Tracy Sylven, CHHC, MCHES, BWFH’s Community Health Coordinator Katie Plante, Fresh Food Generation’s Ed Gathers and Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar Samara Grossman, LICSW
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased by 59 percent—the highest increase recorded in the country. An average of over 600,000 people per month were recorded to have received help from a food pantry in eastern Massachusetts, which is 120 percent more than last year during the same period—not including mobile markets or other emergency food distributions.*
Tracy Sylven, CHHC, MCHES, Director of Community Health and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, presented this information to the Brigham Health Equity, Diversity and Community Health Response Team. When Samara Grossman, LICSW, heard the dire news, she knew there was no choice but to act.
Grossman, who is part of a multi-disciplinary team of recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars program, realized she had a way to address the issue via grant funds specifically provided to tackle inequities made worse by COVID-19. Thus, a collaborative project to address the need for healthy, culturally relevant meals in Dorchester—one of the Boston communities most impacted by hunger inequity—was born.
Grossman took the lead on the project, using her decades of experience as a social worker and her expertise in trauma-informed care to shape the project. “I have seen the ways in which food programs that are insensitive to the needs of recipients can feel demeaning, often requiring processes of registration or identification that make people feel scrutinized, and often giving food that does not give a sense of nourishment or enjoyment. This project is meant to align with people’s needs, be respectful of their wishes and make it as easy as possible for people to get good tasting, familiar food,” she says.
Sylven echoes Grossman’s thoughts on the matter. “We can give out groceries across the city,” she says. “But if the food we are distributing in a certain neighborhood is not food those community members are accustomed to preparing, it just goes to waste.”
For that reason, the team focused not just on distributing healthy grocery items to those in need, but to tailoring the items distributed to those receiving them. Teaming up with Off Their Plate, a local non-profit dedicated to addressing food insecurity through providing economic relief to area restaurants to prepare meals to communities in need, as well as Fresh Food Generation, a Dorchester-based food truck and catering service on a mission to make affordable, healthy food more readily available in low-income neighborhoods, Clinical Scholars Grossman, Annie Lewis-O’Connor, NP, PhD, and Hanni Stoklosa, MD, worked closely with Sylven to launch a six-month program to provide culturally appropriate weekly food boxes to members of Dorchester’s Haitian Creole community who struggle with food insecurity.
Sylven worked with internal and external partners to identify nearly 40 Haitian Creole families in Dorchester who experience food insecurity. “We then worked with Fresh Food Generation to identify appropriate food items and produce to add to these boxes,” says Andrew Crispin from Off Their Plate. “We consulted Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center Nursing Director Nadia Raymond, RN, who has family roots in Haiti, to develop our culturally appropriate food list and then with Tracy, who enlisted students to interview families for their feedback so that we could communicate to Fresh Food Generation people’s preferences and needs. Fresh Food Generation went out of their way to adjust their grocery boxes in terms of content and seasonality. We really wanted to ensure that each box was thoughtfully put together, to maximize each dollar and to help recipients feel the care that went into each box.”
“Thanks to Off Their Plate and Fresh Food Generation, the boxes were packed with mangoes, avocados, rice, beans and other ingredients used often in Haitian Creole cooking,” says Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital Community Health Coordinator Katie Plante, who helped distribute the boxes. “Both groups have been amazing to work with. They are passionate about food and community.”
Each week, from February through May, Sylven and Plante met the Fresh Food Generation delivery truck in the parking lot at the Sportsmen’s Tennis & Enrichment Center in Dorchester. Most community members were able to pick up their box each week. For those who couldn’t make it, usually a fellow community member would pick up and deliver their box. “It was nice to see neighbors helping neighbors,” says Plante.
“The biggest step we can take in tackling food insecurity is making sure healthy foods do not go to waste,” says Sylven.
“Making a direct difference in this time of great need is so important, doing so in a way that means something to those receiving the food is everything,” agrees Grossman.
*Data from Feeding America COVID Hunger Projection/Greater Boston Food Bank Reporting
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