Food pantry program fills a gap in health care – and the bellies of those who need it most

October 23, 2023

Penicillin. Ibuprofen. Whole wheat pasta?

When it comes to things being prescribed by doctors, most people think of pain relievers or antibiotics, but rarely do they think of nutrition. A group of physicians, educators and volunteers are looking to change that with MUSC Ensuring Access to Sustenance (e.a.t.s.), an emergency food pantry program for families who might need a little extra help putting meals on the table.

“We really believe food is medicine,” said MUSC Office of Health Promotion dietitian Laura Nance. “The value that nutrition brings to mental and physical well-being is super important.”

Nance, who is the program’s coordinator, was immediately drawn to the brainchild of MUSC Health pediatric hospitalist Stephanie Kwon, D.O., who was inspired by a similar setup at the Norton Children’s Hospital, when she completed her residency at the University of Louisville.

“When I came here, I knew I wanted to do something similar, so we started small – but Laura just took it and ran,” Kwon said.

The concept is simple. If a family comes into any of these locations with any emergent issue, patients are screened for – among other social determinants of health – food insecurity, which is the medical term for not having enough food or not being able to provide food for the table for an extended period of time.

  • MUSC Children’s Health R. Keith Summey Medical Pavilion-North Charleston.
  • MUSC Health Pediatrics and Internal Medicine – Dantzler MUSC Health Children’s Day Treatment Star Program.
  • MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital Emergency Department.
  • MUSC Health Center for Eating Disorders.
  • MUSC Children’s Health University Pediatrics – Rutledge Tower.
  • MUSC Pediatric Cystic Fibrosis Clinic – Rutledge Tower.
the contents of the 14 pound food bag spread out on a table 
A look inside one of the many varieties of food bags.

Kwon got the program off the ground in 2021, starting with one small pantry at SJCH. From there, Nance rolled up her sleeves and got to work, rapidly expanding to six other areas in the MUSC Health hospital network. The pantries provide emergency food assistance to patients and their families who screen positive for food insecurity during their visit and indicate they would like to take home a shelf-stable bag of food.

Inside the 14-pound bags are things like macaroni and cheese, fruit, vegetables, beans, rice, marinara sauce – even whole wheat pasta. The canned goods are low sodium or no sugar added and the grains are whole grains. The bag provides enough food for at least three meals for a family of four. The bag also has an interactive Food Find card, a tool provided by the Lowcountry Food Bank, to connect patients to a more sustainable source of food near their home.  

“We aren’t just giving families food,” Nance said. “We’re also teaching them how to eat healthier as well as find long-term solutions for keeping that healthy food on the table.”

MUSC partnered with the Lowcountry Food Bank’s Food for Health program to stock the pantries with all of those aforementioned shelf-stable, nutritious foods. Volunteers pack the bags and stock the shelves on a monthly basis and the pantries are coordinated and run through the Office of Health Promotion.

“I think it’s our responsibility as health care providers to provide nourishment and bridge the food security gap,” Nance said. Because that type of thinking is so counterintuitive to the approach of traditional health care, when families learn about the program, they are often pleasantly surprised.“I think part of what makes what we’re doing so rewarding is the surprise. Nobody goes to the doctor’s office thinking they’re going to be leaving with a bag of food,” Kwon said.