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When the MGH Revere HealthCare Center food pantry launched in January, the pilot program was serving about 15 families per week. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic—with more families suffering from food insecurity—that number has more than quadrupled.

Melanie Pearsall, MPH, RD, CDE, senior clinical nutritionist for Massachusetts General Hospital's Department of Nutrition and Food Services and part of the food pantry team, says the site is now feeding nearly 80 families per week, catapulting it into a full-time endeavor.

“This was a dramatic change,” Pearsall says. “Suddenly families don’t have incomes and food. It has been heartwarming to be able to nourish patients, children and their parents. We are impacting the health of the whole family, not just one or two people.”

The pantry receives 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of food from the Greater Boston Food Bank per week. Yet, despite the large undertaking, the team remains dedicated to its mission of providing whole and plant-based foods to its patients and their families.

“Our medical director, Dr. Jacob Mirsky, encouraged us to stay true to our mission even in this time of great need,” says Pearsall.

The food pantry team works together to obtain 95 percent fresh plant-based, low-sodium foods, like bananas, butternut squash, carrots, onions, apples, bell peppers, and these are supplemented with items such as canned black beans and oatmeal. “A lot of food pantries have processed foods, which is not necessarily bad, but we are focused on a different mission to see if we can address not only food insecurity, but also make a difference in health outcomes,” Pearsall says.

While Pearsall now works from home helping coordinate the types of foods to order, how much each family needs, developing recipes families can take home and providing additional resources for families, Mike Lenson, the pantry’s program manager, is at the Revere site daily—figuring out the amount of food to order, picking up food from the Greater Boston Food Bank, dividing and bagging food and scheduling food pickups.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Lenson was a program manager for the MGH Revere Youth Zone. He started in his new role at the food pantry in January, working up to 16 hours per week. Now, he’s working 40 hours.

“I’m glad I’m able to stay productive during this time,” says Lenson, who manages the food pantry with help from one of his high school Youth Zone staff members and two Youth Zone staff.  Any way I can help seems good by me, especially since we’re helping a lot of families.”

In addition to 30 to 60 pounds of food per family every week, Pearsall and the team provides participants with information on nutrition, why a plant-based diet is important and resources to find supplementary foods.

In the future, Pearsall hopes to expand on the pantry’s mission and incorporate a more succinct educational element into the program, offering family cooking classes, a screening component and educational classes.

“Part of me thinks the COVID-induced food insecurity will be a large issue for awhile,” says Pearsall. “We will be dedicated to continue our food as medicine mission and use this opportunity to build on our pantry to serve those must vulnerable to food insecurity and poor health.”