Along with prescriptions and appointments for follow-up visits, some patients are leaving Rex Hospital with bags of groceries to tide them over for a few days.
UNC Rex Healthcare has opened the Triangle’s first hospital-based food pantry for patients who may need help eating well in the first days after going home. The pantry is managed by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and stocked with food provided by Food Lion, which contributed $125,000 to get it started.
“This pantry will help ensure those in need have access to nutritious food when they need it most,” Food Lion’s president, Meg Ham, said before a dedication ceremony Wednesday. “When they’re discharged, they can focus on their health instead of worrying about where their next meal will come from.”
Rex estimates that as many as 20 percent of the 35,000 patients admitted to the hospital each year may be “food insecure,” meaning they have trouble affording three healthy meals a day, said spokesman Alan Wolf. Before patients are discharged, their doctors, nurses and social workers talk to them about their needs at home, which now includes food, Wolf said.
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The idea for the pantry originated with Jim McGrody, the hospital’s director of Culinary and Nutrition Services, who learned about one at a hospital in Minneapolis during a conference. There are still only a handful of them in the country, McGrody said; Food Lion helps support hundreds of food banks in the 10 states where it does business, including one for students at N.C. State University, Ham said, but this is the first in a hospital.
The Rex pantry is down the hall from the main lobby, in a room used for heart catheterization procedures before the new heart and vascular hospital opened early last year. It is stocked with staples, such as dried and canned beans, canned fruit and vegetables, soups and cereals, as well as fresh produce, such as apples, oranges, carrots and potatoes.
Patients are given recipes and are offered the opportunity to attend cooking classes in the demonstration kitchen in Rex’s heart hospital. McGrody said education is an important part of the hospital’s food program.
“Because a lot of our patients end up here because of the way they eat,” he said. “We’re really trying to push fresh produce. But a lot of people don’t know what to do with it.”
Patients can visit the food pantry if they’re able, or volunteers will put together bags of groceries for them. They will leave with a three-day supply for a family of four as well as a list of food banks and other community groups throughout Eastern North Carolina that can help long-term.
“We want to make sure that when they’re discharged that not only do they have a prescription for medications but also have a prescription for healthy food,” said Ernie Bovio, the hospital’s chief operating officer. “They’re leaving here with something that’s going to help them recover from their illness.”