Food pantries exist nationwide to distribute food at no cost to individuals subject to food apartheid – built environments lacking access to affordable, nutritious foods due to systematic racism and oppression (2). As a result, individuals living within these environments have diets of low-nutrient density and are composed of highly-processed and fast foods because they are accessible and affordable options. However, this also results in double the risk of heart attack and diabetes and four times the risk of renal failure (4).
If individuals of oppressed identities impacted by food apartheid want healthier options, they often cannot turn to traditional food pantries. While pantries provide impactful service to their communities, their shelves are filled with energy-dense and nutrient-poor food items. Consuming these foodstuffs over time leads to higher rates of lifestyle-related diseases. In addition, food pantries need more guidance on how food consumption impacts overall health and quality of life, which could be provided by nutrition and health professionals.
What is a Therapeutic Food Pantry?
A therapeutic food pantry is a clinical prescription program prioritizing food as medicine for disease treatment. In this pantry structure, individuals who access the pantry gain access to healthy food and nutrition education, professional resources, and mentors. On-site, patients receive (3):
- Nutrition education relevant to their disease and health goals
- Food demonstrations to learn how to prepare foods
- Referrals to local food resources to address access to nutritionally-sound foods
Why a Plant-Based Therapeutic Food Pantry?
A plant-based diet eliminates all animal meat and by-products, like dairy products, eggs, and honey. The diet prioritizes fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, and nuts, which are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. These nutrients have been found to lower cardiovascular morbidity and mortality (6).
Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that can lower blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels (4). Many individuals have reduced the number of medications needed to treat chronic disease states, which can alleviate the additional financial burden.
Plant-based diets can improve health outcomes by reversing type 2 diabetes, treating cardiovascular disease, and reducing the risk of cancer (8). By combining this nutrient-rich diet with access to guidance from nutrition professionals, food and nutrition-insecure individuals can better achieve a higher quality of life.
What makes this novel from a food perspective?
Food pantries are a short-term solution to a more significant, systemic issue that needs to be addressed through policy change. In the meantime, food pantries play a vital role in feeding hungry individuals across the country.
Most food pantries rely on donations and cannot control the food items available to the recipients. Systemic oppression and lack of government support and funding force food pantries to rely on donations, making it difficult for pantries to request healthier foods for fear of losing large donors. This is coupled with the fact that many food banks need more access to farmers or fresh produce, making it challenging to provide patrons with fresh, local fruits and vegetables (7).
The UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity discovered that unhealthy food donations and social stigma are linked to higher rates of food insecurity among food pantry clients (5). Although food-insecure individuals can receive food through these pantries, the food is often processed, high-fat, high-calorie, and high-sodium, further contributing to disease states. By providing fresh produce, whole grains, and legumes, recipients will not only receive food but will be able to combat health conditions instead of further developing them.
What Makes these Pantries Novel from a Climate Perspective?
Plant-based diets do more than increase the consumption of essential micronutrients and antioxidants; they can help save the planet. The United Nations Environment Programme states, “animal products" -- both meat and dairy, in general -- require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives” (5). A report in 2019 found “vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with the greatest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions” (1). Reducing greenhouse gas emissions not only works to slow climate change but also reduces air pollutants causing health issues worldwide.
Due to the harm of whitewashing cultural foods, resources must be culturally appropriate for each individual to make climate-conscious nutrition choices. By working to help provide food insecure individuals the resources needed to access a plant-based diet, they can increase their plant consumption and decrease their animal product consumption, helping reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Preventive Food Pantry
The United States’ first hospital-based Therapeutic Food Pantry, the Preventive Food Pantry, is found at Boston Medical Center. There, health and nutrition professionals work diligently to address nutrition-related illnesses of low-income patients by linking physicians and dietitians to patients. After a visit to the medical center, the patient’s physician writes a “prescription” for supplemental foods. The patient then takes their “prescription” to the Preventive Food Pantry, where the pantry manager, a Registered Dietetic Technician, determines what foods correspond to their needs.
The pantry is used by patients with chronic conditions such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, and in 2017 they provided food to 83,288 patients and their household members (1). Since opening in 2001, they have served over a million people, and their goal is to promote physical health best, prevent future illness, and facilitate recovery among the patients served.
A key feature of The Preventive Food Pantry is that these perishable goods, which are often costly, are provided free of charge for all patients, therefore taking a step towards providing equitable access for all. The program is covered by philanthropy, and 90% of the food comes from the Greater Boston Food Bank. The pantry’s development team is dedicated to finding funding through donors and grants to cover the yearly cost of operation, which totals $450,000 per year to cover the cost of running the farm, where much of the produce is grown, the teaching kitchen, the food pantry, and staffing (3).
Therapeutic Plant-Based Food Pantry: A Real-Life Example
The Massachusetts General Hospital Revere Healthcare Center piloted a Therapeutic Food Pantry in 2020, and it made headlines for being predominantly plant-based. It targets hospital patients with Medicaid insurance who screen positive for food insecurity and have a nutrition-related chronic disease such as hypertension and diabetes. The founder, Dr. Jacob Mirsky, embraces the concept that “food is medicine” and is proud of the fact that “There isn’t an ounce of red meat, cheese, soda or candy in our pantry—and there never will be.” (9). It is not inherently wrong for pantries to offer food such as cookies and cake often centered on the celebration. However, being a therapeutic pantry, their goal is to provide food geared toward disease management and overall health. Their goal is to become the ‘healthiest’ food pantry in the greater Boston area because they believe that “No patient should go to bed hungry or suffer from a preventable disease that we have the power to avoid” (9).
Only 1 month after the pantry opened, COVID hit the Boston area, significantly increasing community needs among individuals who struggled to access nutritious food when the pandemic hit them economically. Dr. Mirsky and his team decided to expand the operation and service to every patient treated at the center and their families. Thanks to funding from MGH Revere and partnerships with local food nonprofits, the pantry grew from operating out of a closet to filling a 1,000-square-foot space, feeding up to 80 patients and their families each week (2).
Steps YOU can take to Advocate for Therapeutic Food Pantries in Your Community
Acknowledging that many individuals can only make dietary switches with financial support due to systemic food access issues is essential. The solutions will be discovered by bringing people with shared experiences living in apartheid to the table (2). Redistribution of power and root causes must be addressed, and therapeutic plant-based food pantries do not do this. However, in the meantime, they play an essential role in providing the tools necessary to improve health conditions, have equitable access to fresh food, and change the mindset to emphasize “food is medicine.”
Ultimately, comprehensive policy changes are necessary to ensure that no community experiences food apartheid and to redistribute power to remove systems of oppression (2).
While advocating for these policy changes, you can also advocate for equitable access to food and resources through therapeutic food pantries by:
- Raising awareness about the need for systemic change and equitable access to fresh food
- Donate your time, money, or resources to organizations that can work to bring a therapeutic food pantry to your community
- Work to gather a collective group of likeminded people to stimulate change
- Support BIPOC leadership to help amplify their voices within the food justice movement
Therapeutic food pantries can close this gap between communities subject to food access inequities and fresh, nutrient-dense food. In addition, you can simultaneously use your voice for advocacy and action in expanding systemic change and food justice in your community.
1. “A Vegan Diet: Eating for the Environment.” Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2022. https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/vegan-diet-environment.
2. Balch, Bridget. “54 Million People in America Face Food Insecurity During the Pandemic. It Could Have Dire Consequences for Their Health.” Center For Health Law and Policy Innovation, October 16, 2020. https://chlpi.org/news-and-events/news-and-commentary/health-law-and-policy/54-million-people-in-america-face-food-insecurity-during-the-pandemic-it-could-have-dire-consequences-for-their-health/.
3. “Food Is Medicine Programs-Boston Medical Center Preventive Food Pantry.” FIM Hub. Green Brown Blue, October 22, 2020. https://www.greenbrownblue.com/boston-medical-center-preventative-food-pantry/.
4. Fuhrman, Joel. “The Hidden Dangers of Fast and Processed Food.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine 12, no. 5 (2018): 375–81. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827618766483.
5. Hertwich, E., van der Voet, E., Suh, S., Tukker, A., Huijbregts M., Kazmierczyk, P., Lenzen, M., McNeely, J., Moriguchi, Y. “Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production: Priority Products and Materials, A Report of the Working Group on the Environmental Impacts of Products and Materials to the International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management.” UNEP, 2010. https://www.resourcepanel.org/reports/assessing-environmental-impacts-consumption-and-production
6. Kim, Hyunju, Laura E. Caulfield, Vanessa Garcia‐Larsen, Lyn M. Steffen, Josef Coresh, and Casey M. Rebholz. “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated with a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.” Journal of the American Heart Association 8, no. 16 (August 7, 2019). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.119.012865.
7. Messina, Kristin. “Barriers in Food Access Contribute to Inequitable Risks of Obesity and Food Insecurity Among Food Pantry Clients.” UConn Today.
8. McMacken, Michelle, and Sapana Shah. “A Plant-Based Diet for the Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes.” Journal of geriatric cardiology : JGC. U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2017. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28630614/.
9. “MGH Revere Pilots Therapeutic Food Pantry.” Massachusetts General Hospital, February 12, 2020. https://www.massgeneral.org/community-health/news-and-events/mgh-revere-pilots-therapeutic-food-pantry.