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Stories from the Road – The MaineHealth Food Pantry at Stephens

“I’m raising my 9-year-old granddaughter, and it’s tough keeping a growing girl clothed, fed, and cared for. Add in unexpected medical expenses and it becomes just about impossible. A neighbor told me about our local food cupboard and helps drive me there. It’s an excellent source of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and good meat. Because I have cancer, eating healthy is especially important. But that’s easy to do using the ingredients available from the Cupboard. My heart is no longer troubled about feeding my husband and granddaughter. When money’s tight, I know I can come here for nutritious meals.” ~Monique, a senior with lymphoma.

Through Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Community Health and Hunger Program, we partner with health care organizations across Maine to provide training for health care professionals to spot patients experiencing food insecurity. By asking Hunger Vital Signs™ Food Insecurity Screening questions, health care providers are able to identify food insecure patients or those at risk of becoming food insecure, and help connect them to healthy food in their community, either at their doctors’ office or at a local food pantry partner. Several healthcare partners also stock pre-packed emergency food bags, which provide two to three days of nutritious shelf-stable food.

In 2021, Good Shepherd Food Bank and MaineHealth partnered to open two hospital-based food pantries to increase patient access to healthy and diet-specific foods their patients need to thrive. The hospital-based pantry model aims to create safe, welcoming spaces for clients to access nutritious food and connect clients to services that address many of the root causes of hunger.

A hospital-based food pantry program differs from a traditional community-based food pantry in a few key ways:

  • Its location is usually within a hospital, another clinical setting, or in a nearby building
  • They have a special focus on addressing the nutritional concerns of clients
  • They’re often better positioned to provide wrap-around services such as access to healthcare, safe and reliable transportation, and housing assistance through partnerships with community-based organizations and other hospital programming

As a part of MaineHealth’s Food as Medicine initiative, development of the Food Pantry at Stephens was included in the Western Maine Health Annual Implementation Plan for 2021. With the support of MaineHealth and Good Shepherd Food Bank, the vision for the food pantry came to fruition in September 2021.

Previously, patients who identified as food insecure would leave with an emergency food bag and list of resources. Now, when a health care provider encounters a patient facing food insecurity they can refer them to the Food Pantry at Stephens. The pantry is located in a nearby building and provides ongoing nutritional support for patients and care team members in need. Visitors are provided access to direct support from practice social workers, and through a new pediatrics pilot, the pantry will soon offer diapers to local families.

Since the food pantry’s launch, the resource has served an average of 61 households per month, distributed 8,385 pounds of food. The pantry also distributed 754 pounds of fresh, locally-grown produce supplied by Good Shepherd Food Bank’s Mainers Feeding Mainers program. The Food Pantry at Stephens also sources from local farms in the summer and fall during Maine’s peak harvesting season.

“The Food Pantry at Stephens would not have been possible without the partnership with Good Shepherd Food Bank and their involvement with the Food is Medicine team of MaineHealth. They continue to be a joy to work with, both in supply and logistics and as best practice mentors,” said Stephens Food Pantry Manager Carl Costanzi.

Several pantry visitors have been expressing to food pantry staff how hard it’s been with the rising costs of food. They’ve been very grateful for the ability to “shop” and select the food they want and need. Increasing access to healthy, diet-specific nutritious foods is the primary focus for the implementation of the hospital-based pantry. Spouses of cancer patients have been especially appreciative to find things their partner can eat and parents have been grateful for healthy, kid-friendly fresh foods.

Stephens Food Pantry is open Tuesday, Thursdays, and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Conveniently located in the Ripley Medical Office Building at 193 Main Street, Norway, Maine – on the Stephens Memorial Hospital campus in Norway. Visitors will find the pantry welcoming and confidential, with helpful staff and healthy food options, including fresh local produce. The food pantry is currently only available for patients and staff of Stephens Memorial Hospital and Western Maine Health, for more information please talk to your health care provider.

Good Shepherd Food Bank works in partnership with nearly 600 hunger-relief organizations, located from Kittery to Fort Kent, to help distribute food to community members in need. Our network of partner agencies includes food pantries, meal sites, senior centers, school programs, and healthcare facilities.