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Prioritizing community health with Food For Free

Tracy Sylven, CHHC, MCHES, Director of Community Health and Wellness for Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, in front of the MGB Community Care Van

Heat-n-Eats meals expand access to nutritious food in underserved communities across Greater Boston Area

To better support individuals who live and work in communities hardest hit by COVID-19, Mass General Brigham (MGB), which includes founding members Mass General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has deployed their Community Health and Wellness team out into the community to meet people where they’re at—literally!

Aboard the MGB Community Care Van, the team has had thousands of interactions with community members during their stops in Mattapan, Dorchester, Hyde Park, Roxbury, Mission Hill, Roslindale and Jamaica Plain.

During these stops, the team offers critical resources like masks and hand sanitizer, COVID-19 testing and vaccines, blood pressure checks and personal care items. They also offer connections to resources like employment, housing, food, childcare, legal services, healthcare, addiction services and safety. Now, through partnering with Food For Free, the team is bringing even more to the community—healthy and convenient Heat-n-Eats meals!

After an unfortunate pandemic-induced hiatus, the Heat-n-Eats meal program has hit the ground running, partnering with organizations across Cambridge, Somerville and the City of Boston. MGB Community Care Vans have quickly become the largest recipient of Food For Free’s tasty and balanced frozen meals, distributing 150 meals a week across the Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury communities.

Program Manager Sam McDermott explains, “Our new partnership is an excellent example of how Food For Free can efficiently distribute meals through agencies who have already established a programmatic presence in underserved communities across Greater Boston."

Made from rescued, prepared food from local corporate cafeterias, colleges and hospitals, Heat-n-Eats meals are frozen and nutritious microwavable meals lovingly built each week by Food For Free volunteers. While the Community Vans have been able to offer hot meals and groceries, this new addition has allowed the team to take their support a step further.

“Food insecurity in Massachusetts has increased dramatically, and as a result, we’ve ramped up our efforts to provide access to fresh and healthy food,” shares Tracy Sylven, CHHC, MCHES, Director of Community Health and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital. “For our team, the addition of Heat-n-Eats meals has greatly added to our options for our community members. Now community members can come to one of our Community Care Van stops and get a hot meal to eat right away, a bag of groceries with fresh produce to cook later in the week and have a choice of different frozen meals to take home and put away. People repeatedly tell me that these frozen meals are a safety net.”

Prior to the frozen meals, often older, low-income individuals living in the senior housing sites would refuse groceries—many do not have stoves and cannot prepare food. “The nutritious, microwavable meals have become a game-changer for these individuals. It’s nice to see people excited about the options, too,” says Sylven.

Families are also appreciating the convenience of these microwavable meals, and the MGB Community Care Van outreach efforts. Tracy Sylven the story of one single mother with two kids living in Hyde Park:

She had heard about the Community Vans but didn’t know if she qualified, or what she needed to bring or show to access food for her kids. When Sylven shared that they don’t require anything to receive assistance, the woman became choked up, saying, “This is such a godsend. I didn’t know that once my kids got out of school, how I was going to feed them.” Realizing that she could feed her kids the hot meal offered that day, take groceries and bring home frozen meals for the week, the woman continued to repeat, “This isn’t real! What’s the catch?”

Sylven shares, “There’s something special about the opportunity to share with someone that there really isn’t a catch and that we’re there to help them… But it also highlights the distrust in our communities, and the lack of information available. By going out into the communities and making ourselves visible, we are trying to combat that.”

Sylven has been working in the community in public health for over 30 years, beginning the MGB Community Care Vans by distributing supplies and resources from the trunk of her car starting in March 2020: “My team and I have been out here for a while now, and have made friendships with people in the community, and have used this as an opportunity to build trust. It’s enabled us to meet more people and get them the things they need.”

The ability to talk to people and learn more about what they need—rather than just assuming—is the basis of community health, and how the MGB Community Care Vans are able to reduce as many barriers as possible.

Sylven explains, “Being able to give people frozen food is really important, it allows us to build trust and create positive experiences for underserved communities. I know that no matter how much we increase our visits and resources, we aren’t able to solve every problem… But we CAN make food and nutrition one less thing people have to worry about.”

For more information on the Community Care Vans, click here.

To support these efforts, donations to Food For Free can be made at www.foodforfree.org/donate.

Learn how you can bring Heat-n-Eats meals to your organization, reach out to our Program Manager Sam McDermott at info@FoodForFree.org.

Published 8/1/22

Heat-n-Eat Meals are microwavable meals made from prepared food rescued from corporate and university cafeterias.

MGB Community Van stop in Hyde Park, summer 2022.

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